Grand Forks Walmart shooting connected with military suicides

GRAND FORKS--Police still can't say why 21-year-old Marcell Travon Willis walked into a Grand Forks Wal-Mart Supercenter last month and opened fire on employees, killing one and injuring another before turning the gun on himself.

GRAND FORKS-Police still can't say why 21-year-old Marcell Travon Willis walked into a Grand Forks Wal-Mart Supercenter last month and opened fire on employees, killing one and injuring another before turning the gun on himself.

The story is one that may be familiar to the people of Grand Forks. Willis, a senior airman stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, is not the first military member the community has seen end his life in such a violent and public way.

Three other airmen have committed or threatened suicide on the base or in Grand Forks with a firearm in the presence of others since 2010. All had access to several mental health services on the base.

"Anybody committing suicide concerns me-both as a person and a mental health provider," said Capt. Amanda Kruszewski, who heads the base's mental health program. "It's a tragic act for them, for their family, for their friends and for us. It's such a tight community, and every airman is so important to the mission, so of course it's concerning."

In 2012 and 2013, suicide was the leading cause of death among of U.S. active military personnel, according to a 2014 Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center study. The number of suicides outnumbered the lives lost during combat.


"While the military has done a lot of admirable work to try to encourage help-seeking, there's always going to be this tension of how seeking help makes you appear like you're not reliable or not there when you're needed," said Randy Nedegaard, who was in charge of the mental health unit at Grand Forks Air Force Base from 2005 to 2010.

A troubling history

Willis' suicide is one that has captured national attention.

Willis arrived at a Grand Forks Wal-Mart in a car and went into the store shortly after 1 a.m. May 26. Inside the store, wielding a 9 mm handgun, he shot and injured Lisa Braun, 47, and fatally shot Gregory Weiland, 70.

Police said Willis, originally from Springfield, Tenn., then shot at but missed another Wal-Mart employee before killing himself.

"All I know is what I've read in the paper, and clearly, it doesn't make sense from what I know," Nedegaard said. "But if I knew the story, it would make sense. It's like that with every suicide. It's not that I would agree with it or condone those choices, but if we knew the whole story, it would make sense as to how he came to the place of choosing what he chose.

"But in the meantime, it's not very satisfying."

In past incidents on the base and in Grand Forks, the person's reasoning for wanting to end his life seemed to be more clear to base personnel and law enforcement.


On Aug. 6, 2010, Cory McCord, a 22-year-old airman who was deployed for six months in Afghanistan, killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head from a handgun in front of co-workers at the base.

At the time, McCord was not allowed to carry a gun because he was scheduled to face a court martial on charges of rape, assault, drugs and giving false statements.

His supervisor, Master Sgt. Lisa Mashburn, was charged for dereliction of duty for not watching over McCord. She was found not guilty.

The following year, Sean Alexander Dacus, a 31-year-old war veteran, wrote on his arm "Do not resuscitate," "Donate organs please" and "A-" on his arm before fatally shooting himself in the chest on Nov. 29, 2011, outside the emergency room at Altru Health System.

Dacus served two tours in Iraq, and shortly after his death, his uncle said that Dacus had returned from Iraq "a different person."

Twenty months later, on July 21, 2013, Matthew Hullman, 36, was drunk and confronting military police with a handgun when he was killed by base security police.

Hullman, a public health inspector in the Air Force, was threatening to shoot himself as he held the gun to his head in front of witnesses. When he refused to put his weapon down numerous times by law enforcement, he was fatally shot.

At the time of the incident, Hullman recently had returned from deployment overseas.


Reducing stigma

These local incidents from the past six years are stark reminders of larger trends concerning suicides among active and veteran members of the military.

In 2013, the suicide rate among active duty members was 48 percent higher than the suicide rate among the general population, according to data from the Department of Defense.

Kruszewski said the mental health problems that arise on the base are similar to those of the civilian population, with the most common issues being depression, anxiety, relationship stress and job stress.

The issues seen at the base are similar to those of a young individual who leaves house for the first time-a situation most airmen are in.

To help airmen cope with any mental health issues, the base offers several services, including a mandatory annual training that goes through the high-risk factors pertaining to people who could be experiencing mental health issues.

The base offers a mental health clinic, counseling, a drug and alcohol abuse program, a family relationship program and spiritual support, among others.

Kruszewski said though the job is difficult, she believes the programs work well.


"I see people get better, and my patients tell me they get better," she said "I see commanders inviting us out more and more often because they hear airman chatting about something I talked about in a briefing and how they want more."

In the past several years, the base has strived to be more accepting of airmen who seek help, said Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney, a spokesman for the base.

"I've seen it, and I'm not even in the medical field," Dobrydney said of the base encouraging more people to seek help if they need it. "It's not the end of your career if you're stressed, and you seek out help to lessen that stress. The whole emphasis is on prevention and addressing problems before they become crises."

Kruszewski said commanders and other high-ranking officials are encouraging the help-seeking culture the military is trying to establish on the base.

"I think in any culture, it's difficult to seek out help," Kruszewski said. "So many of us are taught that the best way to get through things are to grit your teeth and drive on. And it's so difficult for any of us to admit that help would be beneficial and that having a professional intervene would be a good thing."

Remaining stigma

Though the U.S. military encourages more people to get the help they need, the tough-guy stigma is still largely there, Nedegaard said.

When he was in the military, Nedegaard said he saw more soldiers whose biggest concern was making sure their buddy next to them was OK. They would rather be harmed than have their peer hurt because of their own mistake.


Nedegaard, who now works as an assistant professor in social work at the University of North Dakota, said though the military has worked to encourage its members to seek help, there's always going to be a tension about how counseling makes someone appear as if he or she is unreliable.

"I've had a lot of people who are in the trenches and they're not necessarily fighting for God and country, but in the middle of it, they're fighting for the guy right next to them," Nedegaard said. "You don't want to give the impression to your buddy that you won't be there when the rubber meets the road, so you don't really want to admit a perceived weakness of any kind."

Nedegaard said he expects some significant fallout from the deployments in the Middle East since the turn of the century.

He said when you talk to veterans and military personnel, it's not surprising there's a high level of suicidality. The situations they're dealing with may at times be beyond the person's ability to cope.

"I think there's been a lot of damage done, and I think as time goes on, there will still continue to be pretty high levels of suicide among military and veterans, unfortunately," he said. "It's a tough job and it can be hard to leave some of that behind."

Many of the questions as to why Willis walked into that Wal-Mart remained unanswered-and may never be answered. Authorities have said they will continue to try to figure out what pushed him to that point.

"These are questions where you really scratch your head and go, 'Man, what the heck is going on here?'" Nedegaard said. "And the answers are usually pretty complicated. And if you don't have the whole story, then it's very unsatisfying."

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