For the families of soldiers who kill themselves, the anguish that accompanies the initial news is often only the beginning of their ordeal.
What frequently follows, survivors say, is a string of slights, stonewalling and misinformation that conveys a disturbing message: Their loved ones remain government property, even after their deaths.
Military authorities routinely promise that they will do all they can to help, but some families are left feeling that the military's real goal is to protect itself.
The Campbell family of Cloquet, Minn., came to that conclusion after Corinne Campbell, still grieving after the funeral of her son, Jeremy, started up his laptop. The Army, she discovered, had wiped its hard drive clean. Even his personal pictures from a trip to Germany were gone.
Jan Fairbanks of St. Paul, Minn., spent months of frustration searching for answers about the death of her son, Jacob. Then one day, a thick stack of investigative files was left unannounced by military officials at her front door -- documents that only raised new questions.
Meanwhile, the Hervas family of Coon Rapids, Minn., contends that the Army so zealously protected information about their son, Tad, a high-ranking intelligence officer who killed himself, that more than half of the documents the family asked for were edited to the point of being largely indecipherable. Even his parents' names were blacked out.
The stigma attached to military suicides has long been reinforced by official policy.
Until this summer, the White House never sent letters of condolence to families of service members who killed themselves. The Obama administration recently changed the policy -- but only for those who kill themselves in a combat zone.
Most military suicides occur before or after a deployment.
Earlier this month, the Army announced that its 32 suicides in July were the highest recorded since it began keeping track of monthly rates two years ago. As soldier suicides have risen to record levels, the military has hired scores of mental health counselors to help families cope. Pentagon task forces also have recommended that military officials better inform families about how their loved ones died.
But Michelle Lindo McCleur, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice at American University in Washington, said it's common for outsiders seeking information, including family members of fallen soldiers, to find the military blocking their way.
Lindo McCleur, who served for more than a decade in the Air Force's Judge Advocate General's office, said she suspects that some problems arise because military officials simply want to protect individuals' privacy.
"But I'm certain," she said, "there are probably some individual cases where it's: 'We're not too proud of this, things fell through the cracks, there may have been signs, and we don't want to acknowledge that.' "
Military suicides are treated like criminal investigations. Final reports can take up to a year to complete. Some families say that when records finally emerge, there is often no consistency in what documents get released.
Such was the case for Jan Fairbanks after her son, Spc. Jacob Fairbanks, killed himself while in Iraq with the Army's 101st Airborne. During a retreat for families who have lost loved ones in the service, she met then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and told him her concerns about her son's death. A few weeks later, she was surprised to find the military's investigative files left at her front door. She has gone over them many times, but it is still difficult for her to come to grips with the idea that Jake shot himself.
Last year, a Pentagon task force recommended that military criminal investigation agencies get staffed with family advocates trained in communicating with surviving relatives. The military survivors group known as Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, takes on about nine new cases a week.
"They are desperately trying to answer the whole question of 'why,' " said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a TAPS spokeswoman.
The Hervas family sought access to an investigative report detailing allegations that Tad Hervas had an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate enlisted soldier while with the Minnesota Guard in southern Iraq.
When family members asked for the document, they say the Army referred them to the National Guard. The Guard told them to talk to the Army, they say.
In April, after more than 10 months, the family finally got the final report on the original investigation into the relationship between Tad Hervas and a female specialist. The 119-page report has six pages completely blacked out and the rest with every name blacked out. The family says it cannot assess the strength of the accusations.
"I was hoping the Army would be more open and transparent with the investigation that ultimately led to Tad making his fateful decision," said Paul Guelle, a boyhood friend of Hervas' who has spent more than two decades in the active Army. "But here we are 18 months after Tad's death, and we still don't have answers."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)