Marine's suicide shines light on depression, disorder

ccrumbo@thestate.comFebruary 2, 2010 

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    Those interested in finding out more about Hidden Wounds can check its Web site at hiddenwounds.org.

    Hidden Wounds is holding a pancake benefit from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. on March 6 at Fatz Cafe, 5590 Forest Drive. Tickets cost $8. To-go plates will be available. Details: (803) 920-4266.

Mills Bigham was a 19-year-old Marine in Iraq when he made his first kill.

While on a foot patrol, someone hurled a grenade at Bigham's squad. Bigham, who was at the point, turned and fired.

"I pulled the trigger quickly, twice. Pop ... pop," the Columbia Marine wrote in his journal.

Two bullets hit the attacker's chest, knocking him to the ground. Within minutes, he was dead. The grenade was a dud.

Bigham checked the attacker's identification.

He was 12.

Less than four years later on Oct. 19, Lance Cpl. Mills Palmer Bigham sat in his red Chevy Tahoe, put a .410-gauge shotgun to his forehead and pulled the trigger one last time.

He was 23.

Family said Bigham, a graduate of A.C. Flora High School, suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In hopes they can prevent another veteran's suicide, Bigham's family recently founded Hidden Wounds, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Columbia.

"My brother fell through the cracks," said Anna Bigham, the Marine's sister.

About one out of every five veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have some form of PTSD and depression, according to a federal study.

Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs said the suicide rate among veterans between 18 and 29 years old climbed 26 percent from 2005 to 2007.

The VA also said 20 percent of the 30,000 suicides reported in the U.S. are committed by veterans. The suicide rate among veterans is nearly twice the rate for civilians, according to reports.

Through Hidden Wounds, the Bighams aim to provide temporary counseling and support to sufferers of PTSD, depression and traumatic brain injury until they can enter the Veterans Affairs health care system.

Temporary help is needed because the VA reports it has a six-month backlog in processing claims, the Bighams said.

Some veterans need help sooner, Anna Bigham said. That's why the family founded Hidden Wounds.

A spokeswoman for the Dorn VA Medical Center said the hospital supports the Bighams' efforts.

Like so many service members coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mills Bigham found it difficult to cope with the demons of war that haunted his memories.

Anna Bigham said her brother seemed to feel like he was out of place after completing his enlistment in October 2008.

In the Marines, her brother had a built-in support group of buddies, many of whom were dealing with similar issues.

But once PTSD sufferers return to the civilian world, many feel like they're "a fish out of water," according to a VA study.

This sense of isolation can deepen feelings of depression and suicidal tendencies, the report added.

Anna Bigham said her brother seemed to be overwhelmed with guilt.

"In his last three or four months he didn't go out in the daytime," Anna Bigham said. "He told me, 'I feel like everyone can see what I've done. I can't go on this way.'"

Hidden Wounds also hopes to help the veterans' families learn tell the signs of PTSD and depression and help their loved ones seek care.

John Bigham said he knew his son suffered from nightmares, ringing in the ears and had "sparks of anger," all signs of PTSD.

"But I didn't put it 100 percent together until he died," John Bigham said.

Mills Bigham wrote about his first kill in his journal on Oct. 3, just 16 days before he took his own life.

Bigham said he wanted to tell the story "so you can understand the way death may or may not affect the living party."

As he approached the fallen attacker, Bigham said he could see "it is abruptly clear he is leaving his world, and soon."

"He is suffocating in his own blood. He is blowing blood bubbles through his red teeth. He is crying.

"There are bubbles coming from the two holes in his chest. One to the left of his heart, and the other to the right.

"Death took him and there were no new bubbles.

"He cried no more. I checked his ID. He is 12.

"I wept that night."

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