DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa’s military veterans and the people who advocate for them are feeling a tremendous sense of loss. On Saturday, Marine Corps veteran Brandon Lay of Des Moines died by suicide. It was the tragic end to a life dedicated to erasing the statistic of 22 American veteran suicides, per day.
“Probably the most notable thing about Brandon was his heart,” said United States Marine Corps Master Sergeant, Ret. Matthew Fortune. Fortune lives in Massachusetts. He served with Lay in Afghanistan in 2010. “We got blown up. Brandon Lay, he was a dismount sweeper. He was constantly finding IED’s. Constantly getting shot at,” Fortune continued, “His best friend was killed in action.”
War followed them home. Fortune said, “It got to a point where we had four suicides in four months in that same battalion.” So, Lay dedicated his life to helping. He worked with Jathan Chicoine to organize retreats for veterans to connect with nature, to find purpose, and to come to terms with their own losses. “Brandon was not afraid to say, ‘I love you,'” said Chicoine. “And that’s hard for some of us, you know?” Fortune agreed, “He cared more about others than he cared about himself. Always.”
But there was always something beneath the surface of Lay’s easygoing smile. “He had a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Fortune repeated, “He had a lot of survivor’s guilt.”
On Saturday, Lay ended his life.
“It gets really dangerous when you feel like you’re more of a liability [to the people you love] than an asset, and that’s the best way I can [describe the feeling of coming home with PTSD]. You no longer can find happiness. You struggle to find happiness,” said Fortune. He pleads with other veterans not to believe those lies. “You can find happiness again, but you’ve got to get help. You can get better. You’ll never be perfect. None of us are. We’re all flawed … but you can get better. You can get back into a better place. You just have to stick with it and find the right [counselors].”
Chicoine hopes the people who loved Brandon Lay will channel their grief into loving others who are left behind. “Everything’s so heavy right now and I think so many people are feeling isolated. We’re not able to connect with one another,” Chicoine said. “I think we need to really make sure that we are reaching out, that we are not only looking after one another but that if we’re struggling ourselves that we’re asking for help … I think that Brandon would want us to take care of one another and to live, live the best way we can.”
Fortune again urged anyone dealing with PTSD to seek treatment. “It’s not a weakness. It’s an injury just like any other injury, and you have to get it taken care of. You have to go see someone.”
In a statement to WHO 13 News, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, herself a veteran, wrote, “I am absolutely heartbroken to hear of the passing of Marine veteran Brandon Lay. My prayers are with his friends and family during this extremely difficult time. We have a duty to our veterans and to their loved ones to ensure they get the care and support they need. In Congress, I remain focused on ensuring we keep our promise to provide our heroes the help and care they have earned.”
Anyone struggling with PTSD or depression is encouraged to reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.