(3 of 4)
Magdzas was in Iraq during the surge in 2007, when the U.S. sent 30,000 more troops into the country. It was the most violent period of the war. When he filled out the required mental-health form upon returning home in July 2007, he said he had witnessed combat killings, was depressed and needed help.
Magdzas had trouble finding work beyond occasional stints as an instructor at a shooting school. Three months after going home, he sought help at the VA for PTSD and for the back pain he said kept him from Guard drills. Though doctors could find no evidence of a back injury, a National Guard officer said, "The soldier has much support for a PTSD injury."
"I knew he was having problems," says a Guardsman who served with Magdzas and asked not to be named. "The support from other soldiers definitely would have been helpful." Magdzas stopped meeting regularly with his unit in August 2008, when his commanders began letting him go to VA counseling in lieu of drills.
National Guard officials said Magdzas had talked of coming under mortar fire and witnessing a Marine's suicide while in Iraq, neither of which apparently happened. He missed appointments with the VA. How much of this was fibbing or malingering or evidence of PTSD or a traumatic brain disorder isn't clear.
"You could tell he was really depressed," says Crystal Durm, who had been Magdzas' friend since high school. For more than two years, the VA prescribed him a battery of medications, including Lexapro for depression, Ultram for pain and clonazepam for panic attacks. "They didn't help," Durm says.
In April 2008, nine months after he returned from Iraq, Magdzas got into a fight with April at her brother's house in Minnesota and ended up threatening suicide with an AR-15 rifle. A cop talked with him for 30 minutes about his Iraq service and got him to surrender the gun. Police confiscated the weapons he had in the house where he and April lived, in Carlton, Minn. "When he got back [from Iraq], he seemed sad all the time, sometimes angry, just sat on the computer and played his gun games," April's brother told police at the time.
Becoming a father didn't help matters. "I was married to a Vietnam vet, and I recognize PTSD, and I saw it immediately in Matt," says Jana Studelska, who was the family's midwife when Lila was born in July 2009. Magdzas told her he didn't think he was getting the help he needed at the VA. "He was seemingly frustrated with the bureaucracy and the ineffectiveness of it," she says. "I encouraged him to get help outside of the VA. I thought that was crucial." He never did.
A month after Lila was born, April typed a note addressed to no one on her computer detailing her husband's "increased paranoia and depression." "Matt has scratched, elbowed and choked me in his sleep, and often talks in his sleep as if he is still in combat," she wrote in the message, which was recovered by police after her death. "When I talk to him about these things in the morning, he has no memory of doing so."
By this time, Magdzas had moved his family back to Wisconsin and was rebuilding his arsenal. "Matt insists on having loaded guns unlocked in our bedroom in case someone breaks in," April continued in her August 2009 message. "I have discussed with Matt that I don't like having loaded guns around our daughter, but he is convinced that they need to be near him at all times." A month later, Magdzas' commander wrote in Magdzas' Guard file that the "VA recommended and did accomplish removing his personally owned weapons from his residence." Local police suspect the commander thought the VA had done what the Minnesota police actually did following Magdzas' earlier suicidal standoff and mistakenly believed that he remained unarmed a year later.
According to a police investigation, the VA, apparently early in 2010, gave Magdzas a "high risk for suicide" flag. That designation requires the VA to take certain steps, including "frequent follow-up appointments ... and limiting access to means of harming oneself when possible." Magdzas met more with VA counselors, but there is no evidence the department tried to limit his access to the two dozen weapons he had at home.
Nightmares and Counseling
Suicide prevention has been a persistent challenge for the VA. In 2008 the department estimated that 6,500 veterans kill themselves each year 18 a day including 1,800 under VA care. Counselors "have a wide range of interventions that we can use for suicidal patients, including therapy, medications and hospitalization," says Elspeth Ritchie, a recently retired Army psychiatrist who specialized in suicide prevention. "Unfortunately, sometimes despite everybody's best efforts, there are tragic results."