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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Magdzas talked about the VA a lot: "They pretty much sit me in the room, and they make me rehash only the things that happened in the war," Durm says he told her. "I'm having worse nightmares that don't go away. They're not helping me get over it. They just listen to my stories and send me out the door." By now, Magdzas was drinking heavily and smoking marijuana regularly. Yet at the same time, he was making an effort to hold his marriage together. He and April started attending counseling sessions and going to church, which pleased relatives.

But in the four months before his death, Magdzas lost the two things he held most dear: first his military career and then his wife. On May 10 — his 23rd birthday — Magdzas was ordered to Fort Knox, Ky., for a mental-health evaluation. The psychologist who examined him determined that he had chronic PTSD and warned that "the stress of further deployment ... would most likely result in exacerbation of symptoms and loss of therapeutic gains, thus endangering the safety of SPC Magdzas or his fellow soldiers." His recommendation: "It is in the best interest of this soldier and the Army" that Magdzas leave the service.

Such a decision can feel like abandonment to combat veterans. The soldier who went to war alongside Magdzas summed up officials' reactions like this: "When they see an injury, be it mental or physical, they just look at you as a broken piece of equipment that's probably not going to get fixed anytime soon, and it's probably cheaper just to throw you off to the side of the road than rehabilitate."

Scared and Excited

On Aug. 5, Magdzas told a va counselor that his wife had recently moved out after she discovered he'd been cheating on her. "He said she told him they need to be separated for at least a year, and he felt hopeless," according to the counselor's notes from that visit. Magdzas also said during the session that he had attempted suicide but that the gun jammed. Among the counselor's notes that day: "Patient is not in immediate danger of harm to self or others."

A week later, Magdzas complained to the VA of being flagged as a suicide risk, which jeopardized his ability to legally carry a concealed weapon. The VA didn't budge. "Mr. Magdzas is at a heightened risk of suicide," the counselor noted. "He will continue with his ... suicide behavior flag."

Three nights before he killed his family and himself, Magdzas visited Durm, and they chatted on her deck in the darkness for an hour. "He talked about how he was scared about having another baby but was excited at the same time," Durm says. Although April had moved out, Durm says Magdzas seemed eager to patch things up. "He seemed fine. He had a trip planned, and they were going to do family stuff together." But he was melancholy as well. "He said going into the military was one of the best, and worst, decisions of his life," she recalls. "He said it was the best because he helped protect his family, but it was the worst because he came home not O.K. enough to raise a family."

Aug. 17 began as an ordinary day. April learned, to her delight, that she was being promoted to head cheerleading coach at Duluth East High School. She went to Matt's house for a marriage-counseling session scheduled for the afternoon. That morning, Matt filled out an application for work at a sporting-goods store. He said he wanted a job as a "firearms manager" and could start in a week. He also went to the VA clinic at 10:30 that morning. "The veteran denied current suicidal and homicidal ideation," the counselor's notes say. "He is mindful of the suicide safety plan he recently developed." The 30-minute session was his 10th visit to the VA in two weeks.

Then he went home and killed his family and himself. He didn't leave a note.

A funeral for April and her daughters was held in her hometown of Cloquet, Minn., six days after they died. "Lila loved to dance from the time she was only a few months old," the family obituary read. "She even danced to the heartbeat of her little sister." The following day, Magdzas' funeral was held 20 miles away in Superior. His Facebook page still lists his favorite activity: "spending time with my beautiful family."

This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

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