Colorado Vet’s Death Offers Glimpse Into Suicidal Mind

Colorado Vet’s Death Offers Glimpse Into Suicidal Mind

Hours after being discharged from a mental health treatment facility, 38-year-old disabled veteran Lee Cole hiked into a wilderness area in southwest Colorado Springs with a backpack and the cellphone on which he planned to record his final message.


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Hours after being discharged from a mental health treatment facility, 38-year-old disabled veteran Lee Cole hiked into a wilderness area in southwest Colorado Springs with a backpack and the cellphone on which he planned to record his final message.

Most of that roughly four-minute Facebook Live video, posted publicly the evening of April 23, shows a wobbly pan around a bramble-choked gully, with only a fleeting careen over Lee’s expressionless face.

Turn up the volume, though, and his pain is achingly clear.

“I’m gonna die tonight,” he says, in a taut and breathless voice, his dark pronouncement backed by a dissonant chorus of birdsong. “I’m going to find the highest cliff here and jump off.”

The video spread quickly among Lee’s Facebook intimates and then beyond, with friends, acquaintances and strangers posting prayers and pleas, and then joining the family to try to pinpoint his last known location.

By the following day, his brother, Clayton Cole, was fielding tips and posting public Facebook updates on the search, and the crusade had expanded to other social media and real world hubs, including the Missing Angels network and message boards for the area’s outdoors community. People who’d never met the Cole family stopped what they were doing to help identify the spot where Lee’s video and last photo were shot, and then organized search parties or set out to look on their own.

It was one of those volunteers who ultimately found him, three days later.

Lee had done what he said he would. He’d found a cliff.

“He called it ‘Christ in the Mountains.’ That is what he jumped towards,” said Clay, gazing at a cellphone image of Lee’s final photo: a rocky outcropping in Cheyenne Canyon, at the far side of a wooded ravine. “He just decided, I guess, that he was done trying to get help.”

From rural farming communities in Montana to high-rises in Manhattan, America is grappling with an epidemic of hopelessness.

Two days after the June 5 suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade, and a day before the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an alarming report that showed the nation’s suicide rate increased by 25 percent between 1999 and 2016. Numbers are the highest they’ve been in the three decades since the introduction of new antidepressants began driving rates down in the late 1980s.

The dark trend has cast an especially long shadow over the nation’s veteran population and the mental health safety nets set up to keep them from crisis.

Lee’s death, in particular, shines a spotlight on a category of service members who may be facing an even greater risk of suicide than other vets and the general population — those who have never seen combat.

“Lee worked the Waldo Canyon fire, he worked the Black Forest fire, he worked the floods in 2013. He raised his right hand and pledged to defend his nation and was honorably discharged from the Colorado Army National Guard,” said Clay, whose brother suffered from chronic back pain and PTSD due to a training accident. “He did what his nation asked of him … and he got injured.”

One study of post-9/11 veterans showed that suicide rates and risk also were higher among those whose enlistments were cut short, for administrative, health or other reasons.

Experts theorize the surge may be due to the loss of identity and structure that comes with separation. Clay believes that outside factors play a critical role, as well.

Empathy for America’s service members and what they’ve experienced, he said, can seem conditional.

“The reason you join the military, and especially for my brother, is because you want to serve your country in the capacity of going to war — not I want to go shoot people, but I want to serve in the way my country wants me to serve and Lee did that,” said Clay, a member of the Army Reserve who served 14 years active duty. “It’s difficult for someone who’s been overseas to have someone who hasn’t been overseas say they’ve got PTSD. We’ll say, ‘Well you’ve never been down range, you’ve never seen anything,’ but Lee served his nation the way that his nation asked him to serve … just not in the way he’d planned.”

Since 1999 in Colorado, the heart of the so-called “suicide belt,” the number of people taking their own lives has increased by more than 34 percent.

Higher rates in the American West are likely due to a confluence of several factors, including greater access to firearms and terrain that can make crisis intervention especially challenging.

“If someone’s committed to doing it, there are many, many places for them to do it in El Paso County where it’s very, very difficult to find them,” said El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby, whose office responded to almost 80 “suicidal check the welfare” calls in March.

Nationwide, doctors and public health experts tie escalating cases of self-harm, in part, to the opioid crisis, combined with a changing landscape where more people struggle to access, and afford, primary medical care, much less psychological treatment and counseling.

But even given an ideal scenario, there’s no universal protocol for treating someone who’s in the depths of potentially-lethal despair.

“I have battled with suicidal thoughts — I think my whole family has. My grandfather committed suicide, my uncle committed suicide … and now my brother,” Clay Cole said. “I know I’m at extremely high risk because of my family makeup, but if I don’t recognize that and don’t talk about it … I don’t know how to deal with those types of feelings.”

For Lee, though, talking about those feelings wasn’t enough. A three-day inpatient stay at Cedar Springs, the weekend before his death, wasn’t the first time he’d been in treatment — voluntary and non — nor was his trip to the woods the first time he’d tried to end his life.

“Lee had his struggles, with alcohol, drugs, mental health, for 20 years … but he was a good kid. He had a lot of good friends and family that cared about him – driving him to appointments, taking him in and giving him a place to live, but then he’d turn around and break the rules,” said Lee’s father, William Cole, who lives in Florida. “But it’s a fine line between knowing when to help and when not to help. That’s one of the struggles I went through … and I’m still going through it.”

According to the CDC, more than half of those who committed suicide since 1999 had no known history of mental health issues.

Lee Cole was not among that demographic. He was, however, within the purview of other troubling subsets.

The suicide rate among Colorado veterans was nearly double the state’s overall rate, with vets at a 19 percent higher risk of suicide than civilians, according to a first-of-its kind analysis by the VA of more than 55 million veteran records from 1979 through 2014.

Earlier this year, a congressionally-ordered review of veterans’ mental health care access by the nonprofit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine revealed that approximately half of the 4 million people who’d served since 9/11 weren’t getting the treatment they needed from the VA for issues such as PTSD, substance abuse and depression.

“So many veterans need our services, especially in this community,” said Duane France, a retired Army noncommissioned officer, combat veteran and clinical mental health counselor in Colorado Springs, a city that’s home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of active and former military. “The VA has great clinicians, but they’re overwhelmed.”

France has proposed a new “Green Alert” bill that, if taken up and adopted by state legislators, would establish a system similar to the Amber or Silver alerts enlisting the public’s help in locating missing, at-risk veterans.

Expanding the search bandwidth could save lives in such a scenario, but — perhaps more importantly — France said he hopes the proposal will spark a conversation that reaches the right ears.

“There are so many great resources here in the Springs, but too many people aren’t aware of them or able to access them,” he said. “We always say, ‘A veteran doesn’t need a good reason to avoid therapy.'”

A star athlete as a teen, Lee began struggling with his demons after high school and gave up driving, but not the drink, after a DUI. As 30 loomed, though, he seemed dedicated to getting his life on track, and believed enlisting in the Colorado National Guard was the way to do it, said his dad.

The National Guard is a part-time reserve military force, but members undergo the same rigorous training as Army enlistees.

That period was a “really bright one” for Lee, said Bill Cole, a retired Chief Master Sergeant who served 30 years in the Air Force. “He just loved it and did really good in basic and technical school. But when they handed him over to the National Guard, and it was no longer 24/7 and just one weekend a month. … That was always one of my biggest fears, because Lee kind of needed someone looking over him all the time.”

During a training exercise in Wyoming, the Humvee Lee was in crashed and rolled several times. The injuries to his spine were profound.

“He couldn’t walk; he was in constant pain,” Clay said.

The scars on Lee’s psyche weren’t as easy to see.

Clay believes “100 percent” that the accident led to PTSD that exacerbated Lee’s depression and locked him in a cycle of pain and addiction, ultimately with no end in sight.

“He was always trying to get some relief. So what does the VA do? They write him a prescription for 90 days of opiates … a guy with a history of substance abuse problems,” he said. “From what my brother told me, surgery was on the horizon … but it had been for a while. When the VA doesn’t move quickly on things like this, it gives a person who is in so much pain a reason to go back to abusing their medications.”

Even accounting for the greater severity of pain likely being suffered by those on higher doses, and the fact that they weren’t more likely than any other group to die by overdose, a VA study last year found that veterans who received the highest doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide when compared to those being treated with the lowest doses.

Opioids work by tricking the brain’s neural network into triggering feelings of euphoria via a mega-dose of dopamine. Prolonged — and even short-term — use not only can lead to dependence but an erosion of the brain’s natural ability to tolerate pain and process feelings of joy.

In short, opioids present the kind of biological foil that makes depression, and treating it, even more complex.

“I’ve already been through two psych wards in the last four days, and they released me,” says Lee, near the start of his video. “Been off my meds …”

In the end, Clay figures his brother was just trying to control the pain he was feeling, in his body and in his soul, “any way that he could.”

Depression is a “disorder of the mood … mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self … as to verge close to beyond description,” wrote William Styron, in his groundbreaking 1990 memoir “Darkness Visible.”

Such catastrophic feelings are “nearly incomprehensible” to those who have not experienced them, or only glimpsed them in fleeting, situational bouts with “the blues,” wrote Styron, whose concise work began as an exercise in understanding his own disease and became a treatment tool and flash point for the depression awareness movement.

“The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence,” Styron wrote. “It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk.”

Colorado National Guard Chaplain David Nagel understands the destructive power of that storm. It used to cost him sleep, thinking about all the veterans in distress and going it alone. But “good safeguards” developed in the last decade, to identify and assist those who are struggling before they’re in crisis, have helped, he said.

Those safeguards include the establishment of “gatekeepers” in each National Guard unit who receive specialized training in intervention and suicide prevention, as well as how to spot the warning signs.

“If someone comes forward for help, we want to get them help,” Nagel said. When they don’t, those “‘lifeguards’ can be our additional eyes in each unit.”

“We can’t force people to disclose this stuff, but we strongly can encourage them … and say, we’ve got to get you better,” said Nagel,” one of two full-time support chaplains for the Colorado National Guard. “We take the mental health of each of our service members and their families very seriously. These people really are our greatest treasure. And if we don’t have a healthy force, we’re not able to serve our state and nation when we’re called.”

Tackling that role, from a faith or any perspective, requires an understanding that today’s military is unlike any that served before. Active-duty service members face more deployments, for longer periods, often with too little time back home to re-establish connections or get their bearings.

Whatever Lee’s story, Nagel said he wishes he would have reached out to him before giving up.

“I don’t know if I could have helped. … I know everyone likes to think they could have helped,” he said.

In recent years, Lee had been living with relatives and in and out of sober homes, but seemed to get control of his addictions during a four-month stay at a treatment facility in South Dakota in late 2017. Back in Colorado in January, though, he quickly spiraled back into bad habits and gloom, Clay said.

The day of his return, the brothers went out to lunch in Denver, where Lee had moved back in with their mom.

“He seemed a little off, but I just figured he was integrating,” Clay said.

When he woke up the next morning and saw Facebook photos, posted in the wee hours, of Lee “looking angry and holding a shotgun,” Clay called the police.

“He’s a gentle guy, who’d never, ever hurt anyone. So when I saw those photos … I knew it wasn’t him. It was completely out of character,” said Clay, who arrived at his mother’s house as the police were on their way out. “The last time I saw my brother alive, he was in handcuffs, about to be transported to the mental ward.”

Three months later, Clay logged on to Facebook to find his worst fear playing out, in real time.

Clay said he doesn’t know if Lee could have been saved.

Perhaps with more interventions, more searchers, more love? Or, if someone had been there to meet him when he left Cedar Springs, or the numerous hospitals and facilities, VA and non, that treated him had shared records and been able to work together?

Attempts to contact Cedar Springs to learn more about the facility’s discharge protocol for patients under care for suicidal ideation and depression were unsuccessful.

On a Friday in early June, Clay made his way back to the gully where Lee filmed the video, this time with his mom, Susan Morton Cole.

Susan couldn’t bring herself to watch her younger son’s final message, so it was the first time she’d seen the place where he said goodbye.

After hours of hiking through the woods, Clay said he and his cousins were able to identify the gully, on April 25, and called the sheriff’s department with the update on Lee’s

“It really is beautiful,” said Susan, in a quiet voice, as she overlooked the spot, so similar to all the countless others here.

For a moment, she and Clay let themselves get lost in wistful cheer and memories about a kind-hearted boy who became a kind-hearted man who loved cats, eagles, mischief and his family, even when it might have seemed otherwise. They also talked about the community that helped bring him home.

“If you watch his last video, he said he had nothing and nobody, but that wasn’t true. So many people came together, in such a short period of time, to try to find him,” said Clay. “He had over 150 people at his funeral.”

After the service, more than two dozen of those people met for a less formal memorial, in the gully that now unofficially bears Lee’s name.

Clay can’t help but smile when he looks at the Facebook photo of that gathering.

“It’s really amazing, how people can be,” he said.

He didn’t have the heart to tell them he’s pretty sure they were partying in the wrong place.

4 Responses

  1. psss,,,JMO,, perhaps PTSD,,,FROM FORCED PHYSICAL PAIN VIA DENIAL OF ACCESS TO EFFECTIVE DOSAGE OF MEDICINE TO LESSEN HIS BACK PAIN,, it is just like being tortured,when any doctor forces u to forcible endure physical pain by denying u effective dosages of a medicine that effectivelly lessen your physical pain..This man did not have to die???Only 1 reason,to choose death,,,,to stop the physical pain,,,maryw

  2. JMO there is only 1 REASON,,1 REASON ONLY,,A chronic physical pain person who has physical pain from a medical condition/error to stop the physical pain because their medicine have been denied to them at EFFECTIVE DOSAGE LEVELS,,,THEE ONY REASON!!!!!!maryw

  3. […] Colorado Vet’s Death Offers Glimpse Into Suicidal Mind […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: