The suicide of Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette appears to have stunned her family and friends even more than such tragic events usually do, because as the Tampa Tribune reports, she was upbeat, energetic, and had a lot to look forward to, including a new fitness center she was a partner in.
Acquaintances quoted by the Tribune agree that she was having trouble coping with her experiences in Afghanistan, where she was deployed from August 2012 to March 2013; she had been seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the V.A., which was unwilling to discuss the details of any treatment she might have received with the media. Her sister and her business partner went further, and claimed Brunette had been traumatized by an unreported incident of sexual assault while stationed overseas.
“On Feb. 9, Tampa police found her slumped over in the back of her locked Chrysler 200 sedan outside a Harbour Island cafe near her apartment,” the Tribune reports. “Police say it appears she killed herself with her Smith & Wesson .380 handgun, which she purchased about six months earlier.” She does not appear to have left a suicide note. The UK Daily Mail observes that her last few social-media postings were upbeat reports about the progress of preparing her new fitness studio for launch.
Brunette was universally described by family and friends as cheerful and friendly. She was an energetic achiever who excelled at athletics and did very well in the Air Force, earning the Contracting Officer of the Year Award from Air Mobility Command for her tenure at Camp Stone in the Herat province of Afghanistan, where her commander told the Tampa Tribune she was “responsible for nearly $80 million in contracts providing security and infrastructure to three forward operating bases.”
Her suicide is so incongruous that speculation turned to a hidden trauma from her military career, which her sister Jackie Leverich asserts – without any evidence, by her own admission – was a sexual assault, as related by the Tribune:
I suspect she was assaulted, and she didn’t feel comfortable reporting it for some reason and internalized the incident so she could finish her deployment, which she did with flying colors… It’s not anything she told me, just from talking with all her friends this past week, and piecing those things together. I am female active duty, 18 years in the Coast Guard. I am well aware of those issues, and that’s my gut feeling. […]
I do not know the detail, but unequivocally I can say, yes, something happened, something that should never happen to a human… Something happened and it was why she wanted to get out. So she wouldn’t have to deploy again.
That’s a very thin reed upon which to hang serious charges, which would indict the military’s system for preventing and detecting such assaults – a major concern of every branch of the service for many years. Problems still persist, according to periodic internal reviews by the Pentagon. A December article at Time said that reports of sexual assault in the military are on the rise – “from 3,604 in 2012, to 5,518 last year, and to 5,983 in 2014” – but added that “reforms in handling sexual assault have encouraged more victims to come forward and not cower in secret.”
The Defense Department report quoted by Time said there were still problems with the “tribal nature of military service,” with DoD “unable to identify clear progress in the area of perceived victim retaliation.” This was blamed, in part, on what Time described as “the service’s macho culture.” The Tampa Tribune adds the grim observation that female veterans are more likely to commit suicide than male veterans (in a very confusingly-worded paragraph that also claims female vets have a lower suicide rate than men in the general population, but says Iraq and Afghanistan vets have a far higher suicide rate than the general population.)
The integration of women into the military remains a very hot political potato – it was supposed to go a great deal more smoothly than it evidently has, and male service members, as a group, are given nearly one hundred percent of the blame for the problems. There is no delicate way to put this, but serious problems demand hard information; Burnette’s tragic and confusing death is producing headlines proclaiming she was assaulted in Afghanistan based entirely on the unsupported suspicions of two people– her sister and her business partner– who concede they have neither proof nor even the vaguest allegation from Burnette herself. If she did tell them something they do not wish to repeat to the media, hopefully they have passed it along with care to the proper authorities.
The Tribune interviewed Brunette’s roommate, Heather Milner, who said nothing about sexual assault, but had a “heart-to-heart” conversation with Brunette about the stresses of her deployment in Afghanistan after noticing her becoming increasingly introverted:
I had to pry it out of her… I remember talking with her on Memorial Day. We had a heart-to-heart. She got emotional and started talking about it with me […]
A lot of people deal with that when they are deployed… Death is normal, but when you get home and it is not a normal thing and you have to adjust to what is normal.
Milner also seems to be the source for the claim that Brunette was seeking treatment from the V.A. for post-traumatic stress disorder, which the V.A. could not confirm, citing the need to protect Brunette’s privacy.
The initial report from the medical examiner stated that Brunette had a “long tobacco and alcohol abuse history” and was “suffering from depression and anxiety,” which runs contrary to how her family and friends remember her. They might be underestimating the impact of her brief and intense relationship with a new boyfriend, who Lt. Col. Spranger says she broke up with about two weeks before her death. According to her roommate, her friends noticed a significant change in her behavior last fall: “She got into a new relationship and started doing things out of character. She started partying really hard. It got to the point that it was very excessive.”
Unless Jamie Brunette left some as-yet-undiscovered record of her thoughts and feelings in the days leading up to her death, or more information is released by military authorities and the V.A., her motivations will probably remain a mystery – an especially painful and baffling one for those who knew her, and saw only high spirits, unflagging energy, and ambition. “She would honestly be the last person we would ever think would do this,” her sister said. “If she did this, I can’t even imagine what other people are going through. She helped so many people throughout her life that if we can help some people through her death, and get the word out about PTSD, she would want that.” We should encourage and support all of our veterans to talk about their experiences, and insist our government provide sufficient trained counselors to hear them.
According to the Tribune, the GoFundMe page to raise money for her funeral expenses has more than doubled its goal, with excess funds going to Tampa Bay Buccaneers football player Vincent Jackson’s Jackson in Action 83 Foundation, a charity that provides support to military families, “focusing on the educational, emotional, and physical health of the children.”