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

  • Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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

    It didn't look like a war zone on the ground floor of the small white house in Superior, Wis. At midday on Aug. 18, the Crock-Pot was set to warm, slowly cooking dinner. Freshly washed clothes were in the dryer. An iPhone kept buzzing to life on the living-room couch. But upstairs, the appearance of tranquillity ended at the master-bedroom door. Behind it, a barefoot Matthew Magdzas, adrift ever since his 2007 return from Iraq, had emptied his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol into the people he loved most.

    The first shots killed his 26-year-old wife April and their 13-month-old daughter Lila, who was in her playpen. April's sunglasses remained perched atop her head, a pacifier stuffed into her back pocket. Lila, in pink socks, was wearing a T-shirt that read SPANK GRANDMA — SHE SPOILED ME. Magdzas, 23, next turned his gun on the family's three dogs, killing them all. Then he put the pistol to his right temple and fired his 14th, and last, shot.

    There was one other victim that rainy summer day: the Magdzases' second daughter, Annah, who was in her mother's womb and due to be delivered by cesarean section the next day. When police arrived and saw that April was pregnant, they summoned an ambulance but canceled the call once they realized the baby had died along with her mother, sister and father. She appeared in the police report as "unborn victim — deceased."

    Matt Magdzas' final acts may be the worst spasm of violence committed by a combat veteran since the U.S. launched two wars in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. But in taking his own life, he joined an all-too-common group: Magdzas was one of 113 National Guard members who killed themselves in 2010. The Guard's skyrocketing suicide rate, up 82% from 2009 and 450% from 2004, now exceeds that of active-duty soldiers. This fact underscores the plight of Guardsmen, who — unlike their full-time Army buddies — lack the jobs, support and camaraderie found on military bases after they return home from war. Instead, Guard troops go in the span of a week or two from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan to living among civilians who have no idea what they've just gone through. Many of the Guardsmen can't find work or adequate mental-health resources.

    It's not as though Magdzas simply slipped through the cracks. The demands on these soldiers are unique in American history. After a tour that won him several commendations, Magdzas returned home unemployed, suffering from nightmares and a worsening case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and descended into alcohol and drug abuse. The Wisconsin Army National Guard and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) charted his decline. Things got so bad that the VA flagged Magdzas as a high suicide risk, loading him up with antidepressants and meeting with him regularly for counseling sessions, including one on the day he killed his family and himself.

    "None of us believed that anyone could ever suffer from PTSD bad enough to shoot your own 1-year-old baby," says Shawn Oles, April's older brother. He does not blame everything that happened on the war, but he believes it played a key role in his sister's death. "I don't think our government and our country is doing all they can to help these guys when they come home," adds Oles, who served in the Marines for four years in the mid-1990s. "It's not a light switch. You don't train how to kill people and then do a couple weeks' debriefing and everything's O.K." Magdzas' mother Marianne Bergren says her friendly and sensitive boy returned from war "very, very distant and very angry." Bergren says she didn't want to pry into the life of her newlywed son. But she saw a changed man. "I feel just horrible about everything," she says through tears.

    The National Guard and VA, citing privacy laws, won't discuss Magdzas' case. But TIME has been able to trace what happened to him through military and VA records, which were obtained from government sources. His is an important story because it highlights the holes in the safety net that is supposed to catch the thousands of troubled Guard members returning from combat each year. If someone like Magdzas can snap — even while under the VA's watchful eye — how many more part-time soldiers will fail to get the help they need?

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