Earlier that night, Danny Murchie, an addictions counselor at the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Salt Lake City office, had called Ogden police and asked for a courtesy check on Ermer, his 28-year-old client, a recent Iraq war veteran. Murchie had talked with Ermer and feared he might harm himself.
When no one answered at the Ermer home, police followed footprints in the snow a few blocks into the Ogden Canyon foothills. Near a large boulder, a man’s body lay in the snow, blood pooling near his head. His breathing was slow and gargly.
Ermer was dressed in a black leather jacket and a baseball hat with the logo “Airborne.” When paramedics moved Ermer, barely breathing, to a stretcher, they found his black Ruger .45 pistol beneath him. Hours later, Ermer died at McKay-Dee Hospital Center.
A native of Roy, Utah, Jason Ermer served his country for a year in the northern Iraq city of Mosul in 2003. He was a soldier in the 37th Engineering Battalion of the 82nd Airborne division, later of the 101st Airborne. He was redeployed to Fort Bragg, N.C., in March 2005 and discharged from the Army seven months later. On Nov. 11, 2005, he returned to Utah with his wife Brandi and their newborn daughter Marley.
But Jason was scarcely the same man who had enlisted three and a half years earlier. He brought back to Utah constant pain from a parachuting injury to his neck and lower back, a growing addiction to painkillers and Iraq-fueled nightmares that wouldn’t let him sleep at night. One particularly graphic flashback plagued him—the last terrified look of an Iraqi child, who fell beneath the wheels of a Humvee Jason was driving near Mosul.
When he could hardly function anymore, Jason’s family says, he voluntarily entered the VA system for treatment. But the VA, after helping him with counseling, ultimately added insult to his injuries. In the early hours of Thanksgiving Day 2007, staff members suspected the confused veteran was high. In the emergency room, Jason later told his parents, he was held down and forcibly catheterized by several nurses and security personnel to obtain a urine sample for a drug test. His parents later obtained medical records from the VA that confirmed Jason’s story. The test, his parents add, came back negative. “Now I know what a woman feels like being raped,” he told his wife afterwards in tears. One month later, Jason was dead.
On a recent rainy night, 28-year-old Brandi Ermer stands beside the boulder where her husband shot himself. She looks toward her former home and says of Jason’s two-block journey to his suicide site: “It’s the longest walk anyone ever does.”
Jason’s suicide is a bitter symbol, a summation of issues that many Iraq veterans reportedly struggle with—marital and financial difficulties, health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. His is also a journey that many other Iraq veterans in Utah are all too familiar with. Since the end of 2007, 130 Utah veterans have attempted suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the seven Utah veterans who succeeded in taking their own lives since Jason’s death—down from 13 in 2007—six were from the Korean or Vietnam War era. Only Jason served in Iraq. Of the 130 attempts, however, almost a third were by veterans young enough to have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mike Koplin, suicide-prevention coordinator for the Salt Lake City VA office, is one of 150 such specialists appointed nationwide in April 2007. “The problem is increasing as vets come home and try to make the transition,” from soldier to civilian, Koplin says. For Iraq veteran and Salt Lake City antiwar activist Andy Figorski, Jason’s life and death offer a painful mirror of what might have been, indeed what still might be for other soldiers returning from the Middle East. “I could see myself in that kid, looking for a warm place, for acceptance in society,” he says. “He went to war thinking he was doing right in the world, promoting human rights, peace—then he ran over a kid in a Humvee and the downward spiral began.”
When Jason returned to Utah after his discharge in November 2005, he drove from Fort Bragg with his older brother, David, a captain at Riverdale City Fire Department. They planned on driving straight from North Carolina to Ogden, stopping only for dinner. As David later told the crowd at Jason’s funeral, “That didn’t work out too well.” When they reached Tennessee, they encountered rain “like we had never seen.” Tornadoes forced them to hole up in a small truck stop where they waited out the storm, “laughing at our luck.” They made it to their parents’ yellow-ribbon festooned home in three days.
Jason seemed safe at last. But in so many tragic ways, he never left that storm behind.