They survived the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. But they did not survive the homecoming. A six-month investigation, which paints the most complete picture yet of what happened to Texas’ Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military, reveals that an alarmingly high percentage died from prescription drug overdoses, toxic drug combinations, suicide and single-vehicle crashes — a largely unseen pattern of early deaths that federal authorities are failing to adequately track and have been slow to respond to.
Kimberly Mitchell weeps at the grave of her husband, Chad Mitchell, at the Houston National Cemetery on Sept. 11, 2012. Chad, an Iraq War veteran, was one of hundreds of former service members from Texas who has died not in a war zone but after returning home. Chad died of an accidental overdose in 2010.
Lance Pilgrim, an Army veteran who was among the first soldiers deployed to Iraq in 2003, died of an overdose Aug. 18, 2007 – just six days before his 27th birthday. He wrote this letter before his death, detailing how he had gone from loving his job to being ‘nothing’ in just a few months.
Daniel Pilgrim, 12, looks at empty hydrocodone and oxycodone medicine bottles that belonged to his father, Lance, at his home in Daingerfield, Texas, on August 1, 2012. Lance, an Iraq War veteran, began abusing prescription medicines and spent time shuttling in and out of treatment centers after being discharged from the Army. Despite his history of drug abuse, he was prescribed hydrocodone days before he overdosed.
Judy Pilgrim smells a shirt that belonged to her son, Lance, at her home in Daingerfield, Texas, on August 1, 2012. Two bags of his belongings have remained unpacked since he returned home with them from the Waco VA medical center in August 2007. Two days later he died of a drug overdose.
Daniel Pilgrim, 12, and his grandparents, Randy and Judy Pilgrim, visit the grave of Daniel’s father, Lance, at the Daingerfield City Cemetery in Daingerfield, Texas, on July 31, 2012.
Daniel Pilgrim, 12, and his grandfather, Randy Pilgrim, lower the U.S. flag at their home in Daingerfield, Texas, on July 31, 2012. They fly the flag and a streamer with the words “Honor and Remember” in honor of Lance.
Beverly Dickey, mother of Afghanistan veteran Clint Dickey, has a memorial tattoo on her right arm and a gold star flag on her front door in Waco, Texas. Just before Clint overdosed in 2010 he tried to see a VA doctor about back pain from an injury he suffered in Afghanistan.
At her home in Killeen, Texas, Isabelle Bigham, 4, holds a photo of her father, Wendell Bigham, 28, who committed suicide last October. Bigham suffered from PTSD and pain from a back injury he received during his time in Iraq. His physical pain made it difficult for him to hold a job, and his feelings of guilt over a friend’s death in Iraq weighed heavily on him.
Photos of Wendell Bigham are tacked to the tree in Killeen, Texas, where he hanged himself on Oct. 7, 2011. Bigham was an Iraq War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and tried to get one-on-one counseling at the VA, but the mother of his youngest child said the wait times were always long.
Navy sailor Hunter Ferrell, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, closes his eyes and visualizes his future during an exercise at the military reintegration program REBOOT in San Diego, California, on Sept. 17, 2012. REBOOT is a three-week program to help soldiers strip down military mentalities and rebuild thought processes to better serve them in the civilian world.
Marine Sgt. Juan Chavez walks along the beach at Camp Pendleton, California, on Sept. 17, 2012. Chavez, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, is soon to be discharged from the U.S. Marines, and after three deployments to war zones, he wants to have a smooth transition back into civilian life. Chavez said he often goes to the beach to relax. “It brings me peace,” he said.
Kevin Miller of Milton, NY, visits the grave of his brother, Afghanistan veteran Clint Dickey, at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen on Friday August 3, 2012.