By Adam Sechrist
It’s a chilling statistic: Twenty-two United States veterans commit suicide a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One recent victim: Thirty-year-old Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette.
Capt. Brunette, the youngest of five children from Milwaukee, had served two tours of duty in Afghanistan during her 11-year Air Force career. On Feb. 9, police in Tampa, Fla., found her dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her family and friends came together this week to honor Brunette’s memory and raise awareness about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something Brunette’s friends say was hard for her to talk about.
“Our whole friendship was based on conversations,” says Brunette’s friend Jessica Aguiar. “She never really opened up about her professional life. She’s actually extremely humble about it and all of her achievements.”
Brunette’s friends say they were shocked and in disbelief that a friend who they say was so full of vitality and spirit would take her own life.
“I found out through Facebook,” Aguiar says. “My best friend, Nicole, reached out to me because she saw a status indicating that Jamie had passed, and she screen-shotted it and said, ‘Is this serious?’ And I hadn’t been on Facebook all day, so I was stunned and was, like, I have no idea.”
Brunette’s roommate, Heather Milner, says she had just seen Capt. Brunette the night before she died.
“I was laying on the couch, and I peeked my eyes open ’cause I heard her come in,” Milner says. “I saw her leave. It was normal for her to come in and pack a bag and leave, ’cause she had been dating someone for a while. So I didn’t really pay too much attention to it. I saw her walk out the door. That was the last time I saw her.”
Brunette’s friends and family gathered this week in Tampa to celebrate her life, but talk quickly turned to depression and PTSD, parts of Capt. Brunette’s life her roommate says she rarely spoke about.
“Jamie was very private, so she only opened up to me about her experiences if I had asked about it,” Milner says. “I was considering joining the Air Force last year, and I asked Jamie to tell me what a normal day was like in Afghanistan. She told me it was pretty scary. Her troop would be under mortar attacks on a daily basis, where they would have to run to the bunkers and death was just like a normal thing.”
Her friends say Brunette was getting help from the VA for PTSD.
“I knew that she was at one point getting counseling from the VA, but I didn’t know when she started going or how often she was going,” Milner says. “She never once gave me the inclination that she was suffering heavily from PTSD,” Aguiar says.
Both Aguiar and Milner agree that their friend was suffering from PTSD and think more needs to be done for women coming home from combat missions overseas.
“I think women are just more emotional creatures as it is, and I mean that’s just my opinion,” Aguiar says. “When you are enlisted in the military, You have to have some sort of built-up emotion guard, and you have to kind of amount to the male aspect of it and be just as tough. So I think that they kind of put up walls to be strong as maybe their male counterparts. There needs to be more of a focus on women in the military.”
Research suggests that female veterans are far less likely than their male counterparts to take their own life, but female veterans are three times more likely to kill themselves than women who have never served. That is something Capt. Brunette’s family and friends hope her death will bring to the forefront.
“Jamie was full of life, and I think if she’s looking down right now, I really think that it would make her so happy to know that her story can help someone else,” Milner says. “Even if it’s one person, if there’s another girl out there that’s just as girly as she was but in the military, who can relate to her story and just make her feel like she’s not alone. This happens to other people, and it’s OK to feel sad about it but talk about it. I think that’s the biggest message.”