Jodee Watelet looks at a shelf dedicated to her son, Kellen Watelet, in her home in Mesquite, Nev., on Friday, May 20, 2022. / Photo by Miranda Alam for Voice of San Diego
Jodee Watelet looks at a shelf dedicated to her son, Kellen Watelet, in her home in Mesquite, Nev., on Friday, May 20, 2022. / Photo by Miranda Alam for Voice of San Diego

Read more stories in our What We Learned This Year series here.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide call or text 988.

I was working on a morbid task: going through death certificates for people under 21 who had died by suicide. I wanted to know if, as some reports had suggested, youth suicides went up during the pandemic. It turned out that was not the case, locally. But a trend in the “occupation” box stuck out. 

Boatswain’s Mate. Private First Class. Seaman. Intelligence Specialist. Culinary Specialist.

Navy and Marine recruits – the vast majority of whom had never seen combat – appeared to be dying by suicide at much higher rates than other young people in the area. On further inspection, it turned out to be true.

See all the stories here.

The stories I uncovered were heartbreaking – and at times reflected poorly on military leadership.

Camp Pendleton entrance in Oceanside on Oct. 18, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

After basic training, Private Alex Jones’ commanders sent him to Camp Pendleton to learn combat. He would spend days at a time out in the scrublands on the base, sleeping in tents, shooting guns and learning the skills Marines need to go to war.

On one of the early hikes, Jones injured his back along the sciatic nerve. He had more difficult hikes in his immediate future and he started to wig out. He wasn’t sure he could do it. He asked to see a psychiatrist. Instead, his commanders sent him to see a chaplain.

“The chaplain read him a few bible verses, gave him some tapes and sent him on his way,” said his sister August Anderson, who was talking to him on the phone almost every day.

Jones took part in live fire training a few days later. He wasn’t meant to walk away with any live rounds of ammo – a “shakedown” was in place to take care of that.

Jones took his life more than a week after he began asking for help.

“I tried reaching out for help,” he wrote in a note. “Everyone kind of ignored it.”

Active-duty men in Jones’ age bracket – from 18 to 25 years old – were almost twice as likely to take their own lives as their civilian peers in 2020, according to data obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Freedom of Information Act request.

This has not always been the case. Military leaders long boasted that suicide rates among members of the active-duty military were lower than the civilian population. Screenings allowed them to retain only the most physically and mentally fit, they said. It is not the case any longer and the consequences are deadly.

Young women in the military are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as their civilian peers, Voice found.

Jalitza Cardona’s story is one of the hopeful ones I found along the way. Cardona worked as a ship’s mechanic onboard the USS New Orleans, an amphibious war ship. Like Jones, Cardona’s problems in the military spiraled.

She sought mental health care for depression – and received it. But her shipmates were not generous. They acted like she was a weak link in the chain because she had to leave her duties to see a therapist. They told her to “go take your medication,” she said.

Jalitza Cardona in Santee, California on June 28, 2022.

Cardona tried to take her own life and today she is grateful it didn’t work. She now counsels other vets.

“I have a lot of what I didn’t have in the military. A lot of things that were stolen from me I’m getting today – like brotherhood, a sense of community, a mission, a purpose,” she said. “Those are things I’m actually experiencing today, but not when I was in the military.”

Our findings about Camp Pendleton, in particular, were shocking. At least 30 people died by suicide on the base between 2015 and 2016. Of those, 20 took their own lives in communal barracks housing. Another four, including Jones, died by suicide on training grounds.

“Those numbers reflect a serious, persistent and tragic problem, with concrete cultural change long overdue,” one expert told me.

But military leaders aren’t convinced.

“Does it seem shocking? I don’t know,” Mario D’Aliesio, branch head of behavior health for Marine and Family Programs at Camp Pendleton, told me.

One thing D’Aliesio said to me has been ringing in my head all year.

“So here’s the thing: that free will and choice. When they make that decision to go, they’re not going to advertise it,” he said. “Very rarely is there that cry for help. If they wanna go, they’re gonna go. They may have done it before and then we can prolong that life. But then when they make that decision, they’re going to be alone.”

Experts in military mental health I spoke to, who are veterans themselves, said that is not the case at all. Effective treatments are known and available. The military offers them. But military leaders, they said, have to buy in to those programs and create a culture, where it’s OK to ask for and receive help.  

If you or someone you know is considering suicide call or text 988.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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2 Comments

  1. This is a very serious national health crisis. Mental health experts schooled in sociology will attest that society itself is the biggest enemy. The brute insensitivity, the brute callousness, the brute disregard for suffering is pitifully ironic since we are all equal at the grave. I have seen my fellow Americans call for those on a bridge to jump. “We have met the enemy and he is us” POGO

  2. My final thoughts. Again, in socio-psychological, terms, weak people do not commit suicide but rather the strong and sensitive and usually high achievers or those with a high intellect. This fact would attest to the fact that in personal constitutional matters, arguably most Americans are weak. That is in acting morally and ethically outside the self. Taking no position, being indifferent, having no common sense and no empathy. This describes the American of today and yesterday. Maybe a decade ago on the notorious Pine Valley bridge overlooking a death canyon on Interstate 8, a young Olympic athlete jumped to their final calling. Athletes are high achievers and society is not. Every day, at 70 years old I run the streets of San Diego and witness a living hell of society. These people are not prone to suicide as they are too mean and ugly. And it is the majority not minority. SAD America!!!

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