Like many teens who experienced 9/11, Danny Weiss at 15 years old knew he wanted to serve his country after seeing the devastation of the event on the United States. While he was willing to die for his country, he ended up dying on a different battlefield.
“He was clearly moved by 9/11,” said his mother Julianne. “He hated the smallness and superficiality of high school compared to what was going on in the world. He had a more mature view of the world than some kids his age.”
His father, Andy, gave him the option of the Peace Corp, but Danny had made up his mind to join the Army. Danny believed that if someone attacked him, he would have the training to defend himself.
“Being a military family, we knew there was a risk of losing our son to combat,” Andy said.
However, losing him to suicide never crossed their minds. In March 2012, Danny ended his life in Washington State where he was based. Like many suicides, Andy and Julianne will never know exactly why their son died by suicide. Danny saw a lot of loss around him in his deployments — other soldiers dying, civilians killed. Was it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Was there a brain injury involved?
Danny graduated a semester early from Naperville Central High School so he could join the military. He whizzed through rank and ended up an Army Ranger. But nothing could prepare him, or many others he served with, for the emotional and mental stresses of being at war. According to the Department of Defense Suicide Event Reporting System, 301 active-duty service people were lost to suicide in 2011. Of these, 167 came from the Army — although the Army also has the largest force. In 2010, 295 active-duty service people died by suicide, and in 2009, 309 killed themselves. Figures were not available for 2012, the year that Danny died.
In the U.S., more than 38,000 people killed themselves in 2010, a number that has continued to grow since 9/11 and the economic downturn (American Association of Suicidology).
The Survivors of Suicide support group, part of Suicide Prevention Services America, helped both Andy and Julianne cope with the loss.
“My wife, son (Danny’s younger brother AJ), and I early in our grief, our physical and emotional toll was such that we were in a very dense fog and unable to see things clearly,” Andy said.
Suicide is just one layer of their loss, the military is another. For the military slice of their grief, they have TAPS, the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors.
They found the support they needed through both organizations. And while they know that they are just at the beginning of this journey that started 17 months ago, they see where they can help make change.
Ultimately what Andy and Julianne wish could be different is how service people are trained.
“We abandon them,” Andy said. “We teach them how to be incredible warriors and then fail to teach them how to be citizens again.”
Their goal is to be there in any way they can for any service members who need help. The Weiss family’s journey has morphed from reaching out for help to seeing past the depths of their grief to learning how to support a suicidal person by being first responders. This means they will be there for suicidal people, especially service members and veterans, to give what has been called “invisible wounds” a voice.
“Their wounds are not invisible,” he added. “You just have to look harder.”
Because Danny showed no signs of suicide, the Weisses want to make sure that others feel like they can share their pain and not fear that the stigma of reaching out for help will follow them throughout their military career or label them.
Andy and Julianne will walk to remember Danny and help keep others from following in his footsteps.