By Tom Holmes
OPRF graduate and Illinois National Guard Spc. Lee Atkins took his own life on Friday, Oct. 19. He was 24.
A week later, on Oct. 27, Unity Temple was filled to capacity with family, friends and brothers-in-arms, who were trying to come to grips with their loss and the sense of meaninglessness underlying this tragedy.
Rev. Scott Aaseng, a Unity Temple pastor who led the memorial service, spoke for everyone when he said in his reflection, "None of us should have to lose someone so dear, so young … not like this."
"I will never know why Lee died last week," said his father Dr. Marc Atkins in a prepared statement read at the service by two members of his extended family. "He was, to be sure, a complicated guy and more so after the war. But mostly I want us all to celebrate Lee's life, his many gifts, his caring, his generosity."
And that is how those attending the memorial service chose to deal with Lee's death. They remembered and celebrated his life. For over an hour in the middle of the memorial service, 14 Army buddies, high school classmates, family members and college friends told stories about his heroism, his prize pony tail, mischievousness, love of the rock band Rammstein, sense of humor, and his beloved Camaro. Several called him their best friend.
But the tragic nature of his death could not be ignored and became an occasion to reveal how much soldiers often care for their comrades. Staff Sgt. Ferrar, who served with him in Afghanistan, told a funny story about Lee falling off a truck after returning from a mission. Then he got serious. "As a soldier, I have to stay strong," he began and then, choking up, added, "but I'm also a dad. Lee's death hurt me."
Indeed, Lee's squad leader talked about how serving together in combat builds a brotherhood with strong bonds that civilians may have a hard time understanding. "We're a family," he said, looking straight at Lee's parents. "We're always here if you need a shoulder to cry on."
His fellow soldiers also raised the issue of the increasing problem of suicide in the U.S. armed forces. His platoon sergeant said he was a good soldier and did his job well and then added, "There was another war he was still fighting. Lee's death will not have been in vain if it will raise awareness."
In a Huffington online post, dated 10/26/12, the headline declared, "Military Suicide Rate Surges To Nearly One Per Day This Year." According to the articled, "The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press."
"Lee was very proud — very proud — of his service to his country," said his father in his prepared statement. "Knowing Lee, and loving him the way his mother and I did, I can only imagine his anguish. The demons he carried with him from that war were unrelenting. But he wouldn't admit to that because I think he saw this as another hurdle to overcome, as he did many times in Afghanistan.
"Any struggles Lee may have endured here had more to do with looking for the same meaning he felt when serving his country," he continued. "He said to me, 'In Afghanistan my best was more than good enough. Here my best just doesn't cut it.'"
In a press release, Maj. Gen. Dennis Celletti, acting adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, said, "Invisible wounds are a threat we must defeat. It takes us all, from the highest to the lowest ranks … along with our families, to identify the warning signs and get our soldiers and airmen the help they need."
Without denying that more needs to be done, Capt. Dutch Grove from National Guard Media Relations stated, "Every unit in the Illinois National Guard dedicated eight hours of training in October to suicide awareness and prevention, focusing on reducing the stigma to service members who seek help, identifying resources to get help, and educating soldiers and airmen on the warning signs and methods to intervene."
Marc and Mary Lou Atkins took one step toward preventing a repeat of what happened to their son by requesting that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in honor of Lee Atkins to:
Wounded Warrior Project: woundedwarriorproject.org
PO Box 78517, Topeka, KS 66675
Service men and women participated in the memorial service in many ways. Particularly moving was the Soldiers' Last Respect in which approximately 50 active duty and reserve military personnel filed forward, slowly saluted pictures of their comrade and expressed their condolences to Lee's parents.