This article is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. As part of the series, The Huffington Post contacted military service members and veterans who have considered suicide to learn what saved them from that irrevocable step.
Dan Williams suffered a brain injury from a bomb explosion in Iraq, but it was only later that he learned life is precious, "not something to be taken lightly." Before that thought took hold, he had given up hope of ever feeling better. He locked himself in the bathroom, put a .45 caliber revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
That Williams, 29, now is a volunteer peer counselor at the Birmingham, Ala., VA Medical Center is a testament to his personal inner strength, the support of his family and the healing resources of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But his story is also a cautionary tale about the overwhelming power of mental trauma that can drive strong men and women to their knees -- and the obstacles that warriors and veterans can face in getting help.
Williams was deployed as an Army infantryman to Iraq in 2003 with the 4th Infantry Division. Late that year, in a highway underpass in Baghdad, his convoy was ambushed with small arms fire and then hit with a homemade bomb that peppered him with shrapnel and left him unconscious for two days.
That should have triggered a command decision to pull him off duty and send him to be tested for traumatic brain injury (TBI), a possible result of a concussion and blackout. But the U.S. military hadn't yet begun to require off-duty rest for a concussion, and only began widespread battlefield testing for TBI in 2007, four years after Williams' injury.
Returning home with his unit in early 2004, Williams began a long struggle to understand and manage his injuries. Spasms of rage and depression left him scared and frustrated. The Army, he said, brushed him off with a vague diagnosis of "adjustment" issues. Like many others, he tried to dull the pain with alcohol and drugs. He felt intensely alone, and started blaming himself for his problems: the nightmares and crying jags, the substance abuse, the inability to focus, and the strain of all this on his marriage.
"I got to the point where I wanted to take my own life because I thought that was the best way for me to stop everything that was happening," he told The Huffington Post.
One night in late 2004, he locked himself in the bathroom of his house in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood. His wife at the time was at the door, crying and begging him to come out and frantically dialing 911. Williams pulled the trigger as the police were breaking in; the weapon fired in the ensuing struggle, luckily hitting no one. Williams was 19 years old.
The experience left him shaken -- and determined to get well. But he found the Army unhelpful and frustrating. He encountered long waiting lines for mental health appointments, therapists who he felt couldn't understand him, and therapy that didn't help. He was ridiculed by soldiers in his unit who taunted him for being weak, and felt guilty for being considered unfit for combat duty.
"I tried to get help," he said. "But nobody could explain what was happening to me. Nobody said, 'Hey -- this is what is wrong and this is how to fix it.' I had PTSD without knowing what PTSD was."
A year to the day after his suicide attempt, Williams' godfather, also a veteran, died by suicide. "That afforded me the opportunity to see both sides of it, the side of desperation, and also the side of, what did you do to the individuals you leave behind," he said. "It gave me a new perspective on life, that it's not something to be taken lightly."
It would eventually take him three years to earn a medical discharge from the Army, while his health and mental balance continued to deteriorate. He was bounced around various VA hospitals in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he found things weren't much better.
"I had to wait for hours just to see a doctor, then also wait in line to do anything else at the VA, while constantly hearing and seeing on TV in the waiting rooms [about] the war and bad news of soldiers getting killed and injured.
"I wanted to run and hide so I could be safe."
It took another two years before he found a sympathetic physician at the VA who could accurately diagnose his TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder and begin appropriate treatment. "That was the first time a doctor actually listened to me. He took the time to listen to me as a person, treat me as an individual. He had gained my trust; I knew he wasn't going to use this against me."
It was then, Williams said, that he decided, "I'm going to change my life -- I'm not going to be another veteran [living] under the bridge."
Using his doctor's approach to patients as a model, Williams began volunteering as a VA peer counselor, providing a critical link between veterans and the VA's staff and resources. Many veterans are suspicious of the government and won't enroll with the VA; others, like Williams, don't know what's wrong and can't say what kind of help they need. Some aren't strong enough by themselves to resist the false promise of alcohol and drugs and accept that they need help.
Williams knows he can reach these veterans. He's been where they are, and it almost cost him his life.
"They maybe aren't quite ready to see a doctor, or maybe they are simply having issues with the VA system and need another veteran to talk to," Williams said. "A lot of times they just need somebody to understand what they've been through, and they will talk to us."
"We want to get those veterans coming in and keep coming in, telling 'em that seeing a doctor is a great and wonderful thing and you do need to do this for recovery."
To see all the articles, blog posts, audio and video in this series, click here. If you would like to share your story, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans at 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Dan Williams' home where he attempted to take his life and misidentified his wife at the time.