Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Travis M. Virgadamo dies 'in a non-combat related incident'

During a visit to his family in Pahrump in July, Army Pfc. Travis Virgadamo of Las Vegas shared his recent combat experience in Iraq.

He told of being ordered into houses without knowing what was behind strangers' doors. He talked of walking along roadsides fearing the next step could trigger lethal explosives.

Virgadamo told them he had been so frightened, he had sought and received psychiatric counseling from the military in Iraq. He received additional counseling during a trip home in late July, his family said.

On Thursday crisply dressed soldiers appeared at his family's door in Pahrump to report that the 19-year-old had died that day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a forward post just outside of Baghdad.

The family says he was in no emotional shape to be assigned to combat. The Army knew he was suicidal, the soldier's grandmother, Katie O'Brien, said Friday.

His aunt, Rebecca McHugh, complained: "They gave him Prozac and sent him back to Iraq."

"They (military) knew his circumstances. They gave him counseling in Iraq before he came home and they gave him counseling in Georgia before he was sent back to Iraq. Now he's dead. What good is a dead soldier to them?" McHugh said the family will call for a complete investigation.

That will happen as a matter of procedure, said Sgt. 1st Class Cameron Anderson, one of two soldiers who gave Virgadamo's mother the news on Thursday.

Virgadamo, serving in an infantry unit, drove trucks shuttling ammunition. Virgadamo's death comes on the heels of a recent Pentagon report that at least 118 U.S. military personnel in Iraq have committed suicide from April 2003 to mid-August. That does not include unconfi rmed reports of those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home.

Suicides have accounted for 3 percent of the overall Iraq war death toll, according to some Pentagon estimates. In mid-2006 the Veterans Affairs Department reported more than 56,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had been diagnosed with mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and bipolar disorder.

In 2006 the Hartford Courant reported that the military is "recycling" troops who had sought mental health care, who had been diagnosed with mental diseases or who had indicated symptoms of mental duress and illness to their peers and chain of command.

The newspaper said some military personnel, after reporting mental duress, were pulled from duty, given 72 hours of rest and recreation, supplied with antidepressant medications, such as Prozac or Zoloft, and returned to their original duty stations. The General Accounting Offi ce reported that four out of five returning veterans who by the military's own standards are at risk for mental illnesses receive no treatment. The number of troops taking antidepressants or other psychotropic drugs is unknown. However, Army reports indicate that medical treatment in Iraq involving psychotropic drugs has increased steadily. Virgadamo is believed to be the fi rst Nevada soldier to die in Iraq of a self-infl icted wound.

His family said the soldiers who told them of his death did not use the word "suicide," but rather said it was a "self-inflicted" gunshot wound .

When Virgadamo was on his 15-day leave in July, he told his grandmother that he had been seeing therapists in Baghdad and Kuwait. "He did not want to go back. He had had a couple of close calls," O'Brien said, including being involved in a vehicle rollover. McHugh said she heard of similar close calls from her nephew.

Virgadamo was born Aug. 17, 1988, in Victorville, Calif., and moved to Las Vegas with his family at age 5. He was home-schooled and worked as a box boy at an Albertson s in southwest Las Vegas.

His family said Virgadamo wanted to be a soldier or a police offi cer since age 4. As a teenager he joined the Nellis Cadet Squadron. In an Oct. 29, 2005, posting to MySpace. com, Virgadamo wrote with great enthusiasm of his pending enlistment: "In 16 days my paperwork gets sent in for transfer to senior membership and I become a living CAP Myth Hooah to going active Army." His family said he was very proud when he completed boot camp and thought he had a future in the military or as a forest ranger. On his recent trip home, Virgadamo smiled when he saw a prayer poster for him at the Pahrump Taco Bell.

Virgadamo's other survivors include his father, Robert Virgadamo of the Philippines; his mother , Jackie Juliano of Pahrump; and two sisters, Katie Juliano of Pahrump and Nicole Virgadamo of the Philippines.

Virgadamo's father was told of his son's death by Philippine police offi cers. He is en route to Pahrump, his family said. Services are pending.

On his MySpace profi le, Virgadamo described himself as 5 feet 9 inches tall with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. He said his "most missed memory" was "Vegas." Under "How do you want to die?" Virgadamo replied, "In battle."

Fighting back tears on the phone Friday, O'Brien said , "I just cannot believe it. "I was like his mother," O'Brien said. "I helped raise him. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. I talked to him at least twice a week.

"He was so young. He didn't want to be there. He was so scared," O'Brien said. "Then they put him on Prozac."

He had lost his spirit to be in battle, she said. When Virgadamo saw O'Brien earlier this summer, he told her, "Grandma, maybe I'll just go AWOL."

O'Brien urged him to pray. "He went back praying and thinking it would be OK," she said.

"For sure, it needs to be known he had problems," O'Brien said. "They were going to discharge him. I really think they (military) are at fault to keep someone there. "I think he just knew he was going to die," O'Brien said.

His last screen name was "Lost Purple Heart," O'Brien said.

From the Las Vegas Sun

Army Specialist Travis M. Virgadamo, 19, died of a non-combat related injury in Taji, Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 30.

The soldiers who notified Vergadamo's family about his death reportedly said he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the circumstances of Virgadamo's death are under investigation.

"I don't know what happened, and I may never know what happened," Katie O'Brien, Virgadamo's grandmother, said Tuesday.

One thing of which she is certain, however, is that Virgadamo was not in any condition to be sent to a war zone, where he transported ammunition.

O'Brien said her grandson, who had wanted to be either a soldier or a police officer since he was 4 years old, was having psychiatric problems about which the Army was aware when it sent him back into combat.

She added that Virgadamo was already having emotional issues in training, prior to being assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division.

During his training, O'Brien said, Virgadamo was sent to anger management therapy and being sent to the Middle East did nothing to alleviate his issues.

While on his last leave in July, O'Brien said Virgadamo told her he had been seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist while in Baghdad and Kuwait and was put on Prozac.

"They sent him back even though they knew he was having issues and was not stable and was not military material," O'Brien said.

When her grandson visited her on leave last July, O'Brien said Virgadamo told her about "really close incidents with his life" that happened while he was in Kuwait.

"He was just scared," O'Brien said. "He'd had some really close calls before he came home and was talking about going AWOL [absent without leave]"

O'Brien said she "threw a fit" when she found out her grandson was on Prozac and told him to ask to have his medication switched when he returned to his unit.

O'Brien had spoken to Virgadamo only two days before finding out about his death.

She has since requested all of his medical records from the Army.

Virgadamo enlisted in the Army when he was 17. His father, Roger Virgadamo of the Philippines, had promised that if he got good grades in high school he could join the service.

When he came back from training, he saw a prayer poster put up for him at the Taco Bell here, and O'Brien said "he was very proud."

He was born in Victorville, Calif., but moved to Las Vegas in 1993.

His mother, Jackie Juliano of Pahrump, and O'Brien raised Virgadamo together here after his mother and father divorced.

"He was like my child," O'Brien said. "He said he wanted to live in Pahrump when he came home. He said, 'I want to be close to you, grandma.'"

Virgadamo also bought a new car while on leave, which O'Brien said is still sitting in her driveway.

She said she talked with Virgadamo at length about his fears and encouraged him to pray, even discussing his future plans for working at Nellis Air Force Base.

"He was a very smart young man who had lots of dreams and lots of plans," O'Brien said.

But Virgadamo also told his grandmother that if he died, he wanted to buried in Las Vegas, which O'Brien said will be done. Details about the services were pending as of press time.

Virgadamo is believed to be the first Nevadan supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom to die of a self-inflicted wound.

From the Pahrump Valley Times