By Kevin Moran
Managing Editor, Berkshire Eagle
The Eagle is humbled for the DFMie acknowledging its ongoing coverage of a veteran’s suicide. Given the sensitive nature of the story that we covered, and covered with as much care as we did, we will be donating the cash award to a group that helps veterans.
We’re also sensitive to the fact that this review of how and why we reported this story could prove to re-upset family and friends. That’s why — ultimately — we thought it best to present a straightforward essay on how we put this together.
Newsrooms don’t often report on suicides. This one, however, was different. Ultimately, we were able to tell the story of a Marine veteran who heroically had saved lives in Afghanistan only to return home and be stymied by a backlog of Veterans Affairs claims. His post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression are what caused the suicide; however, it was a failed system — the claims backlog — that contributed to his inability to get the help he needed from the country he served.
The start …
Local authorities on May 12 confirmed they’d located the body of a man on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, a public place frequented by hikers and tourists. Indeed, the search for the body involved a contingent of personnel. Ordinarily, we would report on the search for a missing person, its results, the person’s identity, or the discovery of a body, etc.
Complicating matters, however, is that authorities knew the context of their search: The man had posted a suicide note online. However, we did not know this, and officials weren’t talking.
Initially, however, it wasn’t clear to us that it was, in fact, a suicide. But could the death have been an accident? The local police department’s information conflicted with the district attorney’s. At the end of the night, we had brokered the decision on the most accurate information we had to report: The Eagle’s Dick Lindsay reported that night online that authorities had recovered a body during their search and that the death was not considered suspicious.
Unraveling the background …
On May 13, further investigation of the death by Jenn Smith and Kevin Moran found that — based on social media postings, conversations with friends and other sources — it was Edward S. Passetto, an ex-Marine who killed himself by jumping off a cliff at Monument Mountain.
But why? We made contact with a fellow Marine, who shared a letter Passetto had written — an open letter to President Obama, he called it — before his death. The letter was stunning because Passetto detailed frustration over his long struggle to receive the benefits he felt were due him after serving in Afghanistan. We learned that he had saved the lives of men in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan; the incident left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. What’s worse, Passetto had languished in the Veterans Affairs pipeline for two years. Passetto wrote that he “felt abandoned by my own country.” And Eagle Managing Editor Kevin Moran wrote the story confirming that the death was a suicide but also explaining the story …
In Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto saved the lives of two men in a helicopter crash that killed 16 civilians at Kandahar Airfield in 2009. Risking his life, Passetto ran toward the fiery wreck and pulled the injured men — two of only five who survived — to safety.
After coming home to Pittsfield in 2011 after a medical discharge, Passetto was now a veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, according to a fellow Marine and Passetto’s own letters and statements.
Passetto spent the last two years “in limbo,” struggling with Veterans Affairs over his disabilities claim, he wrote. He had gone into debt, lost jobs, fallen behind on bills, relied on the GI Bill “to survive,” and “lost my wife and son over my issues both financially and medically,” he wrote.
In an open letter to President Obama, Passetto asked for help because his two-year struggle with the VA system had made him “feel as if I am abandoned by my own country.”
Still, Passetto described himself as a “proud veteran.”
“I believe it was Monday morning when I first learned the name of the victim, which stopped me in my tracks,” said Eagle reporter Jenn Smith. “I had just met and interviewed Ed Passetto less than a month earlier, at a flag-raising and veterans awareness week kickoff at Berkshire Community College. We had talked a fair amount about his struggles returning to civilian life after spending seven years on active duty. He was particularly frustrated about the process and delays of receiving his veteran’s benefits.”
Jenn Smith also wrote a sidebar that day …
It will have been a month ago this Thursday since 28-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward S. Passetto stood before the flagpole at Berkshire Community College to speak about the importance of the American flag and raise it in awareness of Student Veterans Week at the college.
He spent seven years in the Marines, joining in 2004. He served as a Harrier jet mechanic and was deployed overseas for a tour in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2011, he became a veteran and was proud of it, saying so at public veterans events, on social media pages, and in the Letters to the Editor section of The Berkshire Eagle.
Being responsible …
Because of the sensitive nature of reporting on suicides and knowing that this news could be a trigger for others, we also included information on “where to call for help” in our coverage: Crisis hotlines and websites, where to find local resources, and information on what to look for if someone is in crisis and how to help.
“This is when my previous connection with local suicide prevention advocates became critical,” said Jenn Smith. “With some support from the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, I ultimately connected with Dr. Jennifer Michaels from Berkshire Health Systems and the Brien Center in Pittsfield, an expert on the issue who is also passionate about helping others and raising awareness.
On Tuesday, May 14, we furthered this aspect of suicide coverage too with a full-fledged story.
People who face any threat to their mental health, be it a traumatic circumstance, an illness like depression or major life change, can become overwhelmed by their emotions, and be prone to having suicidal thoughts.
This matter comes to the forefront in Berkshire County since veteran Marine Corps Sgt. Edward S. Passetto died over the weekend by an apparent suicide that took place on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington.
Passetto, who had seen live combat action and rescued men in a helicopter crash, had been battling post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, according to a fellow Marine and Passetto’s own letters and statements.
‘When people are depressed and isolated they feel very much alone,’ Dr. Jennifer Michaels said, speaking generally about people affected by mental health disorders. She is an attending psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center and medical director for the Brien Center.
On Tuesday, May 14, Eagle reporter Jim Therrien continued to push the story about returning veterans who aren’t getting services they require through Veterans Affairs. Local officials called this tragedy a “wake-up call”:
The death of a Marine Corps veteran who struggled to have his disability claim processed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs could provide “a wake-up call” nationally, according to Rosanne Frieri, the city’s director of Veterans Services.
Citing the national backlog of some 850,000 pending claims for medical services — including some she has helped local veterans to submit — Frieri said she doubts much will change “until we fix this broken system.”
The issue was thrust into the public consciousness over the weekend by the apparent suicide of Edward Passetto, 28, of Pittsfield, who as a Marine served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is credited with risking his life to save two people in a helicopter crash. Shortly before his death, Passetto described in an open letter to President Obama his attempts for more than two years to have his disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems allowed by the VA.
On Tuesday, May 14, we also editorialized on the issue:
It would honor Edward Passetto’s memory and the memory of other forgotten veterans if Americans insisted that their appointed and elected officials do justice by the soldiers who are too often abandoned once they set foot again on U.S. soil.
Our initial interaction with the family was rocky. Understandably, they were distraught, angry, upset that this had happened and that we were reporting it. By May 13 and 14, because we had a more complete picture of the situation, we started to build a bridge of communication with the family.
That week, Kevin Moran and Jenn Smith met with Passetto’s mother and a family friend. They were still distraught, but more understanding of our coverage. They assisted us in better understanding Passetto and his troubles, particularly as a returning veteran who was fraught with many issues.
The May 15 story from that interview was powerful but also wrenching: The mother of a Marine Corps veteran was calling for change at Veterans Affairs.
Patricia Passetto wants change in this country and in how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves its constituents.
Her son, 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran Edward S. Passetto of Pittsfield, died on Saturday morning in an apparent suicide on Monument Mountain. He had long struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
On Wednesday, Patricia Passetto met with members of The Eagle staff to champion the legacy of her son and share her frustrations about how people like her son become burdened by the length of time it takes for a veteran’s benefit claim to be reviewed, stamped and delivered.
‘I want to see changes,’ said Patricia Passetto, a Lee resident, who had served in the Navy. Her late husband and Edward’s father, Michael J. Passetto, had served with the Army.
‘I support our military. I support our military men. I do not support our military’s process,’ she said. ‘The whole administration needs to change.’
Community reaction …
By this time, the community had begun to come to grips with this tragedy. Letters to the editor called for changes to the system, for the country to respect its veterans. While a tragedy, many who knew Passetto were moved by his plight and felt he should be honored for his efforts to fight on the homefront for returning war veterans.
For example, Brittany Clark, a former classmate of Passetto, spearheaded a fundraising effort through the family-run Clark’s nursery in Lee. On Memorial Day weekend, the Lee business matched all sales tax on items sold at the nursery, proceeds to benefit area homeless veterans. We made sure to preview these events as part of our coverage. Others coordinated a vigil.
Lawmakers spoke out on this too:
‘He was truly a casualty of war,’ [state Rep. William] Pignatelli said. ‘He struggled with his trauma and the horrors he saw in the Middle East as a returning veteran. No young soldier who served his country valiantly, a hero in this terrible war on terror, should come home and struggle to find the services and the support that he needs. Eddie is gone but will never be forgotten.’
What had been a difficult subject to cover had motivated the community to act to pressure the government to fix the system. We learned and reported that our local congressman had delivered a copy of Passetto’s open letter to President Obama. One can only hope the president read the letter.
Following through …
Through the willingness of his loved ones, fellow Marines and other community members, we were able to share more intimate details of this young man who fought for his country, for his fellow vets but ultimately succumbed to the trauma of carrying on this fight without much positive response in return.
Ultimately, we received the family’s OK for intimate coverage of Passetto’s funeral.
During his sermon for Friday’s funeral service, the Rev. Jack Sheaffer, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, he called Edward Passetto a ‘hero’ who ‘gave us his life and labor and love.’
The pastor also acknowledged the issues Passetto and others in the U.S. struggle with when faced with unbearable stress and pain.
‘The death of someone who took their own life in their hands it’s not the kind of death we want for ourselves or our loved ones. Here we are, the survivors, having to come to grips with why, but we are not alone,’ said Sheaffer.
He noted how more than a half-million people in the U.S. attempt suicide each year, and 30,000 complete it.
‘It happens to every kind of person, no matter where they are, or what they look like,’ he said.
The Catholic Church used to declare suicide a sin and once denied those who had died by suicide a Catholic service and burial. The church has since amended and eased its stance, and considers people struggling with mental health disorders to not have an awareness of committing a sin.
As much as this was a team effort in the newsroom, this was also a community effort of individuals and organizations wanting to do their part in helping to support others who are confronting suicide and mental health issues as well as veterans’ rights and needs.
It continues …
Into June and to this day, we keep reporting on the backlog confronting Veterans Affairs and how the agency is attempting to clear its backlog of claims.
The nation wants its veterans to receive the benefits they deserve. And we owe it to veterans to continue to keep the pressure on to ensure claims are processed swiftly and veterans get the help they deserve.