2 suicides leave loved ones without answers
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- Despite efforts, veteran suicides remain alarming
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- Wright County tackles mental health as community issue
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Rory Gavic was a young, decorated military member who served his country overseas twice, who had earned praise and the respect of his peers, who had volunteered as a Big Brother.
His suicide in 2009 devastated his family, especially his mother. His death was the beginning of hers.
Rory had joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve after graduating from Eagan High School in 2002. A few years later, he enlisted as active duty in the Air Force and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.
As a military canine handler, Rory served in Iraq in 2007 and Pakistan in 2009. He earned more than a dozen commendations, including Airman of the Year in 2008.
Rory earned a reputation as a skilled dog handler and a committed soldier who was well liked by his fellow troops. He loved animals, especially his military working dog, Allan. In photos, he's seen crouched down next to the burly tan and black German shepherd. Rory is lean and muscular, dark eyes gazing straight ahead.
But the deployments changed Rory. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rory Gavic and Allan.
(Photo: Connecticut Police Work Dog Association)
In 2009, he was 25 years old and stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Layton, Utah. On Nov. 14, he called his mother, Linda Sawatzke at home in Buffalo. She was worried and asked him to talk to her. He hung up. She tried calling back again and again, but there was no answer.
Later, Utah officials called Linda to tell her they were searching for Rory, who was missing from the base. His truck was found in the starkly rugged Antelope Island State Park. Police searched the area until it got too dark, then resumed in the morning.
Rory's body was found the next day. He'd shot himself.
Hundreds of people attended the memorial service at Hill Air Force Base, including top officers. Many more signed an online guestbook where they described Rory as a dedicated soldier and a fun-loving friend.
Left behind were two brothers and a stepsister, his stepfather and his heartbroken mother. The program for the memorial service included a quote from Linda.
"Rory, I love you more with every beat of my heart. I miss you so much my son and you have only been gone for a short while. My life and my heart have a missing piece that will not fill until I see you again."
After Rory's death, Linda seemed unable to move on.
Her sister, Debbie Larsen, was concerned. Debbie had lost her own son, Raul, to suicide in 2004. Linda had been a source of comfort then, going for long walks with Debbie when she was feeling down.
Around the four-year anniversary of Rory's death, Debbie stopped by Linda's house to check on her. Their sister had told Debbie that Linda was having a hard time.
She pounded on the door, rang the doorbell. No answer. The door was unlocked, so Debbie went in. Linda was in bed with her back to the door. Debbie woke her up, startling both of them.
Usually polished, Linda looked haggard, her hair in a messy bun. She told Debbie she'd meet her in the kitchen for a cigarette. Debbie was surprised. You never smoke in the house, she said. I do today, Linda replied.
On the dining room table lay papers written in blue ink. Debbie tried to read them, but Linda turned them over. Debbie asked what they were. Just some things I was writing, Linda said.
She changed the subject, asking Debbie if she had read the memorial she'd put in the local newspaper for Rory. Debbie said yes, it was beautiful. But she was worried. To Debbie, it sounded like Linda was telling Rory, "see you soon."
Linda said she didn't mean to be rude, but she worked last night and worked later today. Would Debbie mind going home?
I'll stay with you, Debbie said. You can sleep, I'll watch TV. No, Linda said. I'll feel like I have to entertain you.
Linda walked Debbie to the door and gave her a long hug. Debbie kissed Linda on the forehead, and left.
The next day, on Nov. 16, the phone rang at about 7 p.m. It was Debbie's stepfather, Rick. I have some bad news.
Linda had shot herself in the heart, the same as Rory. She'd even used the same 9mm handgun. Her sister Rita had found her and tried to do CPR, but it was too late to save Linda.
Debbie broke down. She told her husband to drive her to the hospital, where they gave her something to calm her down. She asked for Mitch Weinzetl, then the Buffalo police chief and a friend, who came to visit her.
We can't save everyone, he told her.
Linda apparently had been planning her death for a long time. She'd recovered Rory's belongings, including his personal weapon, from the Sheriff's Office in Utah. The papers Debbie had seen on the table were her own obituary and instructions for her funeral.
More than 500 people signed the guest book at Linda's memorial service.
Debbie had now lost three close family members to suicide.
Debbie Larsen views the graves of her sister Linda Sawatzke and nephew Rory Gavic at the St. Francis Catholic Cemetery near Buffalo Friday, Nov. 7. Gavic was a decorated canine handler in the Air Force. He killed himself in 2009. His mother Linda Sawatzke killed herself almost exactly four years later with the same handgun.
(Photo: Dave Schwarz, email@example.com )
"How a person gets saddled with that level of tragedy in their life — it's just hard," said Mitch Weinzetl, who has left the Buffalo police department and now teaches criminal justice at St. Cloud State University.
Weinzetl worked with Debbie Larsen on the Wright Mental Health coalition. He said he can't fathom what she has been through — and how she keeps going.
"I try to envision myself having a close friend who committed suicide and I think about how impactful that would be for me. Then I try to consider what it would be like to have my own child do that. And a nephew, and a sibling.
"It takes me beyond my capacity to understand how someone maintains some measure of normalcy in their life without being just completely shut down with that kind of tragedy," Weinzetl said. "Deb has managed remarkably to channel those life tragedies into ... a measure of societal benefit."
Debbie has become a passionate advocate for suicide awareness and prevention. She works with Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national nonprofit organization based in Bloomington. She's volunteered at Eagle's Healing Nest, a recovery home in Sauk Centre for veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. She's given speeches at national gatherings and earned a President's Volunteer Service Award.
Earlier this year, Debbie competed in the Today's American Woman pageant in Greenville, South Carolina, and won the title of National Petite Elite Mrs. 2014. Her platform: suicide prevention and awareness of depression.
"I am moving forward," she said. "If it helps just one person, to me, it's been worth it. I just can't quit."
Linda and Rory are buried side by side in a small cemetery on a hill overlooking Buffalo.
A stone statute of a dog resembling Allan stands guard by Rory's headstone. A stone angel stands in front of Linda's amid baskets of fading mums. Snow covers a patch of ground where Linda had planted moss roses, her favorite.
Debbie comes to the cemetery often to water and trim the flowers. In the beginning, she came almost every day. Now her volunteer work keeps her too busy. It has become her gift to those she has lost.
"Their voices are silent now," she said. "I feel like I have become that voice. I have to be that voice. It's like I'm fighting for them. It's like I'm fighting for everyone who's struggling."
Talk About It
Share stories and strategies for coping in a new online place for Central Minnesota veterans and their families at www.facebook.com/scarsofservice
Follow the #ScarsofService hashtag on Twitter.
And join the discussion as Terry Ferdinandt and Hector Matascastillo take questions from readers on sctimes.com.
About the reporters
Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.
Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.
You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.
David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.
The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.
You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.