COVINGTON, Ky. -- In his neatly written four-page suicide letter, Matt Winkler detailed the “perfect storm” of disappointment and despair that led him to a quiet spot on a hillside that sloped down to Prisoners’ Lake in Covington’s Devou Park last Sept. 16.
The Marine Corps veteran who had completed two deployments in Afghanistan had placed the letter nearby on the hill and then pulled the trigger on his shotgun to break the park’s silence and end his life 10 days short of his 28th birthday.
Inside of three weeks in late August up until his death, Debbie Winkler said her son had been unsuccessful in seeking help from the Veterans Administration in Cincinnati for PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder – at a time when a long list of other problems began piling up.
“He called it the perfect storm in his suicide letter…(totaling) his car, he was having girlfriend issues, he was tired of delivering pizzas, he had no money, but I think the car (accident) was the end because when he passed away he had thirty dollars in his pocket and eighty dollars in his checking account" Winkler said in an interview at Covington Coffee Company, about a block from her home. "He had no money. He would have been a homeless vet if he couldn’t come back and live with me,”
“He would tell you that he was trying to find a purpose for his life," she said. "We teach them how to be soldiers, but we don’t teach them how to be civilians (when they leave the military). When we teach them how to be soldiers they have a purpose, but when they come out of the military they don’t have a purpose anymore.”
Although she’s aware that suicide can carry with it a dark stigma, Winkler will go public in her hometown on Monday, June 5. She will be one of the speakers as Covington conducts a Veterans Suicide Awareness ceremony at 3 p.m. at the Northern Kentucky Police Memorial at the foot of the Suspension Bridge.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, the Lewis County Republican whose Fourth District includes Northern Kentucky, will be the keynote speaker for an event that will include remarks from Zach McGuffey, a Marine Corps Infantry veteran. McGuffey is the president and founder of the nonprofit organization 22 Until Valhalla, which represents the 22 U.S. military veterans who kill themselves every day.
The area near the memorial will be decorated for the next month – designated as Veterans Suicide Awareness Month -- with 660 American flags that signify the number of U.S. service members who commit suicide each month.
Covington Mayor Joe Meyer also will speak at Monday’s event. Matt Winkler was one of three candidates who ran against Meyer in the May primary election last year. Winkler finished third in the primary, when the two top finishers, Meyer and incumbent Mayor Sherry Carran, won the right to square off in the general election in November.
Winkler had been the first candidate to file while three other candidates didn’t submit their paperwork until the deadline approached. Once Carran and Meyer entered the race, Winkler said her son realized that winning was improbable.
“Then it became a game to see how many votes he would take from the two of them (Meyer and Carran), Winkler said. "I think he knew he wasn’t going to win. It was just a matter of how many votes can I get my first time out?”
Matt Winkler and Meyer made each other's acquaintance when they both showed up at about the same time for a haircut at a Scott Street barbershop, Winkler and Meyer said.
Matt Winkler had been the battalion commander of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Training Corps at Holmes High School, when he graduated at 17 as one of the top 25 students in the class of 2006. Winkler, who works with special needs students at Holmes Middle School, said her son wanted to join the Marines immediately after graduation.
But Winkler, who is divorced, said she declined to sign the paperwork that would allow him to enter before his 18th birthday because she wanted him to experience college life. Matt then studied for three years at Virginia Military Institute, where he majored in political science and history.
She said her son left school to join the Marines when he was told that he qualified for a position in the intelligence division.
Because most of what he did was secret, Winkler said he never revealed much about what he did in Afghanistan during tours in 2011 and again in 2012. But some of his comments made it clear that some assignments had been dark and troubling.
“But he would tell you that 'if I didn’t have it (PTSD) with the things that I did and saw, then you should be worried about me,'” Winkler said.
Although she was critical of how the VA handled her son’s problems for a variety of reasons, Winkler said her remarks on Monday would not focus on an agency that has become a lightening rod for criticism in recent years.
Instead, she wants to advocate for a new program that would help veterans make a smoother transition from the military to civilian life, something that would provide the kind of support and training that people may need once they have completed their military service.
Winkler said her son’s PTSD led to an acute drinking problem.
“He just couldn’t survive," she said. "He just couldn’t keep his head above water financially, emotionally, socially, physically. He told the therapist that he would drink to pass out. He just said he wanted the pain to stop, and that was the way he knew how to do it. And that’s why I say to myself that I don’t think my son wanted to die. My son just wanted the pain to stop, and that was the only way he knew. That’s how I get through each day.”
Besides the emotional issues he dealt with, Winkler said her son’s physical problems included deafness in one ear as well as back and knee injuries.
“They drink themselves to death and then finish up with a bullet,” said Thomas Weatherford, the general manager of the coffee shop who served in the Army for eight years as a combat medic and has worked for the state with veterans who faced criminal charges. “I can’t believe that 22 veterans a day die and it’s overlooked – nobody pays attention."
In an effort to focus more attention on PTSD, Winkler has spoken before the Kentucky Education Association and will travel to Boston later this year to make a presentation to the National Education Association.
Winkler, who also has a 25-year-old daughter, Nicole, said she thinks the VA needs to make some changes.
“They don’t recognize suicide as a service-related illness,” she said. “I didn’t send my son broken to you, and then you sent my son back and you didn’t help me fix him.”
Matt Winkler’s last letter also made it clear that he didn’t want anyone to believe that the tail end of his life was indicative of how he lived for nearly 28 years.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the person I’ve been the last three weeks," the letter said. "I want to be remembered as the person I was."