A Soldier's Tragedy

He killed his wife, his daughters and himself. What one National Guardsman's murder-suicide reveals about the plight of weekend warriors

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Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Before he left for Iraq in 2006, Magdzas' local paper hailed him as a patriot

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Weekend Warriors

The National Guard and its weekend warriors have always been a mongrel military. Its 54 units — one for each state and territory — traditionally reported to their governors and only rarely to U.S. military commanders. But that changed after 9/11, when Guard units became a key cog in the U.S. war machine and spent more time fighting enemies overseas than floods and forest fires back home. Guardsmen account for nearly 400,000 of the 2.2 million troops who have served in combat since 2001. They're part-time soldiers, typically spending 39 days a year training, and were never intended to fight for so long. The Guard lacks even the overstretched mental-health capabilities of the regular Army, relying instead on the VA and other government and private care to tend to its mentally ailing. "Psychological health is not a core competency" of the Guard, Joan Hunter, the Guard's mental-health chief, said in a 2009 briefing. Military leaders have admitted that Guard troops coming home from war receive only cursory mental-health examinations. "I don't think we're getting enough time with them at the [demobilization] station to give them the kind of behavioral checkouts they need," General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff and top suicide fighter, told Congress in June. "We take a reserve-component soldier today, and within five to seven days, he's back in his community on his own."

Insufficient screening and lax follow-up make for a deadly combination: more Guard troops come back from war with mental illness (42%) than their active-duty counterparts (20%), according to a 2007 article three Army experts published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also have a tougher time adjusting to postwar life: a 2010 Army study found that PTSD and depression in Guardsmen was "significantly greater" after a year back home than in their active-duty comrades.

"They lack the ready camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the daily oversight and hands-on assistance from members of the chain of command experienced while serving on active duty," Chiarelli said in January when he released the 2010 suicide toll. "They are more vulnerable to the challenges of an adverse economy and a troubled labor market, especially for our young people." Young, jobless and lacking support — the general might as well have been describing Matthew Magdzas.

The National Guard suicide rate may be even higher than the official tally because families may not report the deaths as self-inflicted. "There's a disincentive for reporting suicides on the civilian side because life insurance won't pay up if there's a suicide," a National Guard official tells TIME. Compounding this problem is the Guard's reporting requirements — or lack thereof. Lynne Oetjen-Gerdes, deputy chief of the Mortality Surveillance Division of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's office, told a recent Defense Department panel investigating suicides that there's "very poor visibility" on Guardsmen who kill themselves. While the local unit may be aware of what happened and pass the information up the chain, "it certainly doesn't get passed to the casualty-reporting system," she said, where it could be added to the suicide toll. Ask the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center for suicide data on Guard members, Oetjen-Gerdes says, and "they laugh and basically say, 'Well, we can't tell you a lot because Guard and reservists tend to fade away.'"

"Safe and Responsible"

Magdzas, the only son of a Wisconsin state trooper, always wanted to wear his nation's uniform. He enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard a year before graduating from Superior High School in 2005. A year later, he volunteered to go to war. Before Magdzas shipped off, his hometown paper, the Superior Telegram, hailed him for his patriotism. "I want to fight for my country," he told the paper. "It's only a year," April added. "He'll be back."

He logged 12 months and 28,243 miles (45,453 km) protecting convoys throughout Iraq. Magdzas' commanders praised him as "exceptional" and "safe and responsible," and he was awarded several decorations, including the Combat Action Badge. He earned that award for defending his convoy on Nov. 4, 2006, when it came under nighttime fire about 60 miles (95 km) south of Baghdad. Two insurgents armed with AK-47s were shooting at the convoy from about 75 yards (70 m) away. "Several of the rounds came within inches of my face," Magdzas told his superiors. But muzzle flashes and tracers helped him pinpoint the enemy. "He was calm, professional and accurate with weapon," the driver of his gun truck reported. Magdzas "neutralized" the threat after a five-minute firefight, according to the citation, "possibly saving his life, the lives of the team and other convoy personnel."

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