- Walter Padilla during a recent vacation in his native Puerto Rico. Padilla shot himself last week in Colorado Springs.
When Walter Padilla returned from the war in Iraq, his marriage ended, he was haunted by nightmares, he went bankrupt and felt most secure carrying a handgun.
Last week, sitting on his bed, he placed his Glock to his head and pulled the trigger.
The El Paso County Coroner's Office says no note accompanied the body of the 28-year-old, whom family and friends were calling a casualty of a war.
"When he came back from the war, he was a totally different person than the one that I knew before," says Spencer Lee, Padilla's "best friend" for the past six years. "He was a little more on edge. Definitely moving in and out of depression. ... His life was falling apart."
Friends and family will remember Padilla, a Puerto Rican who made a second home in Colorado Springs, for his good-natured laugh, generosity and poetry.
Yet they also recall his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, leading up to the time he took his life between the night of March 31 and morning of April 1.
He often spent nights in front of a glowing computer screen, fending off warped nightmares. He kept his gun in his BMW. He battled feelings of paranoia.
"Sometimes he didn't want to go anywhere to socialize," Lee says. "He didn't like being around large crowds of people. He was constantly alert. Driving into work one day, he saw lights from a jet that's what they turned out to be. He thought it looked just like a mortar flash and he swerved across lanes of traffic."
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., did not return calls seeking statistics on veterans suffering from a combat-stress disorder who have committed suicide.
The Government Accountability Office last year found about 5 percent of troops who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan were at risk for PTSD. Since 2003, Fort Carson's cases have risen six-fold, last year approaching 600.
In 2003, Padilla, manning a gun on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, faced Iraqi insurgents near Kirkuk, according to Jeovanny Pardo, who served alongside Padilla in a 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Division platoon.
Pardo says two groups of men were arguing over a pile of wood in a village, and as Padilla's Bradley approached, the men fired.
Padilla fired back.
- Walter Padilla was haunted by nightmares after serving in Iraq.
Later, Padilla recounted his experience in an article printed by Cincinnati CityBeat that explored links between such incidents and PTSD.
"You're walking up on something you've done with your hands," Padilla said. "You see the back of brains blown out. You know it's either him or you! But, I'd never seen anybody dying."
Pardo adds that by the time the platoon returned to Fort Carson in 2004, he had lost many of his comrades.
Months after returning, Padilla left the Army with a medical discharge, according to his friends and his brother, who lives in Connecticut. Then Padilla complained about mental health services at the VA in Colorado Springs.
"They couldn't help him," says Padilla's brother, who also is named Walter. "They didn't help him."
"They would basically blow you off," Pardo says of Padilla's experience at the VA. "They tell you things are normal, or you'll get used to it."
Dr. Herbert Nagamoto, the VA's chief of mental health services for eastern Colorado, would not speak about specific cases like Padilla's, citing privacy concerns. He says that though the VA in Colorado Springs offers a variety of mental-health services, it does not provide a suicide prevention officer.
"We really rely on veterans to let us know if they're having problems," he says, adding they should call 911 if they have suicidal thoughts.
The U.S. House recently passed legislation calling for comprehensive improvements to VA mental-health services for returning combat veterans deemed at risk for suicide. Now being considered by the Senate, the legislation was proposed on behalf of Joshua Omvig, a 22-year-old Iraq veteran from Ohio widely thought to have had PTSD before committing suicide in 2005. Nagamoto says if the legislation becomes law, a suicide prevention officer would be based in Denver and coordinate with VA branches, including Colorado Springs.
In some ways, friends say, Padilla's life appeared to be improving. Kelly Spencer, a close friend of Padilla's and his roommate after he returned from Iraq, recently helped Padilla land a computer sales job.
Yet Padilla faced financial problems. Bankruptcy filings show he struggled to keep up with car and mortgage payments.
Close friends say they missed potential suicide signals, such as a change in Padilla's eating habits and his reconnecting with Army pals he hadn't spoken to for years.
Spencer advises anyone with a war veteran in his or her life to stay close.
"Keep them in your life and let them know that you're there for them any time," Spencer says.
"I just hope that he's not in pain anymore," Spencer adds. "He really had some demons he was fighting."