Editor’s Note: This story involves discussion about military suicide that some readers may find upsetting. If you feel you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It is a free, 24-hour hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Another grief and trauma resource is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) military survivor helpline: 800-959-TAPS (8277) or email email@example.com
Marine Corps Lance Corporal Robby Mathews’s family is cooking up his favorites today – steak, veggies and red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting – a joyful tribute on a somber day of remembrance.
It’s been almost six years since the active duty Marine died by suicide as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and a suspected traumatic brain injury caused by an improvised explosive device that exploded under his vehicle in Afghanistan.
But this is the first Memorial Day that his wife, Aaron, felt ready to mark the holiday specifically in Robby’s honor, after grappling with how to recognize Robby without letting his death define him.
CNN spoke to seven widows and family members of service members or veterans who died by suicide and they all reported similar feelings.
“I thought I was alone when I first became a widow,” said Teresa Bowman, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Justin Ray Bowman, died in 2012. “I didn’t want to talk about it because - I don’t want to say I was ashamed - but because it’s a taboo topic.”
At first, Teresa would simply say that Justin died and leave it at that.
She stopped following military-related Facebook pages after reading comments criticizing service members and veterans who died by suicide. The judgment from within the community stung the most.
“You’re told. ‘He was a coward, he took the easy way out,’” she said.
The stigma of suicide leaves many families to mourn in private.
“Nobody knows what to say, so it’s uncomfortable and you get to that point where you don’t say anything,” says Connie Dalton, the widow of Army Sergeant Major Bob Dalton, who died in 2015.
Nicole Langhorst, whose younger sister, Army Staff Sergeant Michelle Langhorst, died not long after a training injury forced her to medically retire, confronted the awkward conversations head on.
“People at work didn’t know what to say to me so I decided it would be a good idea to write a paragraph about things people would be able to ask me – and not ask me – and I passed them out to clients,” said Nicole, who was working at a hair salon when her sister passed away.
“For me, that worked. It doesn’t work for everybody,” she acknowledged.
She now works for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the leading nonprofit serving families who have lost a loved one due to service-related causes, conducting outreach for sibling survivors of suicide.
“Really, it’s an illness. I look at it like a disease when you see the numbers,” said Air Force veteran Ronelle Hulbert, who lost her husband, Chris Hulbert, a veteran Air Force officer who was serving in the reserves when he died just over a year ago.
According to the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, an active duty service member or veteran dies by suicide almost once an hour.
“It’s an injury. Their mental and emotional state were injured,” Ronelle explained during a videoconference with CNN Home Front and several widows.
“They may have not come home with visible wounds, many of them come home and the war shows up later,” says Sabine Ward, widow of retired Army Sergeant First Class Clay Ward, who died in 2013.
The women describe their loved ones’ final months and years and patterns take shape: Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse or substance abuse related to chronic physical or psychological pain from combat-related injuries, relationship problems with significant others and children.
“These are guys and women who gave until they had nothing left to give,” said Kim Ruocco.
Her husband, Marine Corps Major John Ruocco, was on active duty when he died in 2005.
Their sons were 8 and 10 years old at the time. At first, she told them it was an accident, after she was advised – wrongly, she now says – to shield them from the details of their father’s death.
Two weeks later, as she considered the consequences of them eventually learning from someone else that he had died by suicide, she told them the truth.
As a social worker, Kim channeled her grief into educating and helping families survive what she has, running the suicide education and outreach program that she built for TAPS.
Suicide, she argues, should not disqualify military men and women from being remembered on Memorial Day along with all the lives lost in America’s wars.
“They didn’t die a heroic death, but they lived heroic lives,” she said. “They’re one of the less than 1% who stood up and lived a life of sacrifice and dedication to their country.”
This is how they’re being remembered by the people who love them:
Marine Lance Corporal Robby Mathews
From: Wharton, Texas
Died: Sept 4, 2014
Robby Mathews served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also part of several Marine Expeditionary Units, joint efforts between marines and sailors aboard amphibious assault ships, designed to respond to national security threats on a moment’s notice.
He met his future wife, Aaron, on the dating website Christian Mingle, and quickly stepped in as a father figure to her two young children, Noah and Emily, and the couple had a daughter, Lizzie, together.
Lizzie was 18 months old when her father passed away. Now almost 8 years old, she asks over and over to watch a video her mom took of her and her dad.
Robby is holding his baby girl, dancing with her. He sways with his gurgling infant.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” he coos, his vivid blue eyes twinkling as Lizzie looks up at him in wonder.
When the family moved, Lizzie carried a framed photo of her dad to each room of their new house, showing him around and telling him stories about her new friends.
This year, Lizzie asked if she could buy a Father’s Day present for her dad – a first.
Air Force Captain Christopher Hulbert
From: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: January 3, 2019
Chris Hulbert was a decorated active duty logistics officer in the Air Force before he joined the Air Force Reserves. He served in Germany, Africa, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
As a child, Chris would sit and read encyclopedias. He loved to learn about other cultures and people and had earned two master’s degrees.
“He wasn’t a small talk type of person. He wanted to have the big conversations,” said his widow, Ronelle, an Air Force veteran as well, who remembers Chris as an avid people watcher who loved to sit at cafes and read books.
He called her “Peanut,” and she called him, “Pumpkin.”
Early on in their relationship, Ronelle showed up for a date at Busch Gardens theme park with a strained back.
“I could barely walk,” she recalls. “He was holding onto me so I could walk straight.”
That evening, they sat down for dinner in a restaurant. As two elderly women sitting nearby stood up to leave, Chris jumped up and helped one of them put her coat on.
“That’s just how he was,” Ronelle says.