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Shots in the dark

Elsewhere, community efforts target soldiers in trouble



Editor's note: Click here for updated information on Rick Duncan, who was interviewed for the story below.

It was just after 10 on a Friday night when gunshots startled Mary Tradel.

Before the Widefield resident could call for help, she saw sheriff's deputies from her bedroom window. In minutes, her quiet neighborhood hosted high drama, as officers tried to negotiate with a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran holed up in a home across the street.

"What has happened has happened," she remembers one deputy calling through a megaphone. "We can work this out."

Tradel heard a single, final shot around 10:45, and after midnight, she says, SWAT team members stormed the house. They found Spc. Larry Applegate dead, one of as many as 24 suicides Army-wide last month a stunning increase from four suicides in January 2008.

Tradel compliments the deputies, who seem to have followed the script for crisis negotiations. But some claim things never should have gotten that far.

"Once you get to there, it's over," says John Downing, head of Soldier On, a Massachusetts soldier support group.

With the area district attorney's cooperation, police, paramedics and other first responders attend Soldier On's six-hour training sessions to help them recognize erratic or aggressive behaviors possibly tied to combat experiences.

The organization, which also runs a veterans shelter for an area of about 250,000 people, places newspaper ads asking people to recognize veterans' problems. Downing says the outreach is designed to keep vets out of jail and prison; the goal is to get them care, treatment or housing before their behavior strays too far.

"There's nothing as comprehensive as that in El Paso County," says Rick Duncan of Colorado Veterans Alliance, a veterans advocacy group.

Local law enforcement agencies don't offer training to help officers identify soldiers acting out because of combat stress. Cmdr. Fletcher Howard of the Colorado Springs Police Department says that in crisis management training, officers learn how to help any person who's coming unhinged. For people whose problems don't rise to that level, police may suggest other resources.

But soldiers don't get special treatment, Howard says, in a city where they're just a "small segment" of the population.

"We're not going to treat them as a soldier," he says. "We're going to treat them as a civilian in Colorado Springs."

Before his death, Applegate was in a special Fort Carson unit for wounded and recovering soldiers. Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, post commander and suicide-prevention advocate, calls his death a tragedy.

Graham says there's coordination between military and law enforcement, with the post offering Army familiarization courses to cops and others. (It's not clear, however, that many officers attend.) Military police, he adds, commonly are called when a soldier gets in trouble.

A special veterans court in El Paso County could add a new safety net. A committee of public defenders, mental health professionals, prosecutors and other officials is now laying the groundwork for a program that would help soldiers charged with crimes into support and treatment for underlying problems.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says there were no previous calls to the home on Harding Drive; Applegate's local criminal record shows only a charge from November of driving with a suspended license.

But had Tradel been encouraged to report odd behavior from her neighbor, she might have done so after seeing Applegate kick his dog, or hammer at a flat-bed trailer for hours at night.

Tradel, who walks with a cane, remembers Applegate once extending her an offer of help. She declined, but now says, "It was like he wanted to talk to somebody."

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