Although they’ve never met, Karen Biddle and Summer Frost share a bond forged in tragedy.
It’s a connection that also links them to the family of Drew Winkler, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran from Crestview who killed himself on Memorial Day.
Like Winkler, Biddle’s and Frost’s spouses were veterans who took their own lives after years of struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like Winkler’s family, Biddle and Frost want people to understand how pervasive PTSD and veterans suicides are in Northwest Florida.
Biddle made a promise to her husband that she has spelled out on her forearm.
“I will tell your story,” the tattoo reads.
‘Screwed up in the head’
Karen Biddle met William Biddle about 18 years ago on a blind date at the AMVETS post in Crestview.
“He was so handsome and so kind,” Karen recalled with a sigh. “We just hit it off right away, and were together ever since.”
Nicknamed “Grunt” in honor of his service in the during the Vietnam War, he told Karen early on in their relationship that he was “screwed up in the head.”
“I told him so am I, so I guess we’re a good pair,” Karen said with a laugh.
During his two tours of duty in Vietnam, Grunt earned two Purple Hearts. In one particularly bloody battle, he and another Marine were the sole survivors.
After leaving the Army, Grunt began to display many of the classic symptoms of PTSD: anxiety, sleep problems, paranoia, and agoraphobia.
“He was first diagnosed in 1994,” Karen recalled. “Back then, they put you in the psych ward for awhile. He didn’t even know what was wrong with him.”
‘If he had just said yes’
Talking about Grunt is both painful and cathartic for Karen. Her home in Crestview is filled with memories and mementos of the man she loved for 16 years.
Her tears flow freely as she struggles to recount Grunt’s battle with PTSD.
“Over time it got to be where he just couldn’t be around people,” she said. “He was just so paranoid and had trouble trusting people.”
Karen said when Grunt’s condition worsened, “They (Veterans Administration doctors) finally put him on a drug that seemed to keep him stable,” she added. “He stayed on it for several years, but then they put him on a different drug.”
Although the new drug seemed to help at first, after a time Grunt told Karen it made him feel “really weird.”
“He couldn’t explain how it was affecting him,” she recalled, her voice choking back sobs. “And his sleep — oh God, his sleep! He’d be up at least once every hour.”
Grunt’s condition deteriorated when he fell ill with pneumonia. One day he called Karen at work and begged her to come home right away.
“When I got there, he was in the bedroom,” Karen said. “He had this look of fear on his face, and he grabbed me and said, ‘Please don’t leave me! Never leave me!’ ”
When Grunt asked her to call an ambulance, she knew he was in crisis.
“For him to say, ‘Call an ambulance’ was unheard of,” she said. “He didn’t even like to go to his doctor’s appointments.”
An ambulance and sheriff’s deputies quickly arrived. The deputies asked Grunt if he was having thoughts of hurting himself or someone else.
“He said ‘No, no, NO!,’ ” she recalled, her body shaking with sobs. “If he had just said yes. If only he had said yes.”
‘No such thing as happily ever after’
About a week later, on March 17, 2015, Karen woke up from a nap to find Grunt lying on his back in their back yard. At first she thought he had fallen and hit his head.
“But then I saw the gun,” she gasped between sobs. “I never even heard the gunshot.”
Karen gave Grunt a funeral with full military honors and had his body cremated. She created a small shrine in the back yard on the spot “where his spirit left his body.”
“People used to tell us that we had a fairytale romance,” she recalled. “But there’s no such thing as happily ever after. I’ve been in hell since the day he died.”
‘A few signs’
Summer and Waynetta Frost’s life together wasn’t always easy. The women got married in San Francisco in 2008 when gay marriage first became legal.
Not all of their friends or family were in favor of the match, but Summer says she couldn’t have been happier.
Netta, as Summer called her, had already served more than six years in the Air Force when they met. As a member of a military security forces team, Netta had deployed in support of the war on terror, and was recognized for her outstanding performance.
– She isn’t sure, but Summer suspects that Netta was already suffering from PTSD when they met.
“I think she tried to hide it from me, because she didn’t want me to think there was something wrong with her,” Summer recalled.
Looking back, she says there were signs that something was wrong.
“Once I moved in with her, I found out that she slept with a knife and a gun under the pillow every single night,” Summer said. “She was obviously dealing with some kind of emotional distress.”
Like Grunt Biddle, Netta had trouble sleeping, and would get up several times at night to check the locks on the doors and windows. She couldn’t go to Fourth of July celebrations or to events where there were lots of people and loud noises. Frequently, she and Summer would be on their way to a party or gathering, and Netta would say she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go home.
“She didn’t want to admit that she was having a panic attack,” Summer recalled, wiping a tear from her eye. “I didn’t mind, because when you love someone as much as I loved her, partying is not that important.”
Sending a message
Summer and Netta were together for five years. By the summer of 2013, both were experiencing health problems, and Summer was hospitalized.
On the day before Summer’s birthday, Netta came to visit her in the intensive care unit. She brought her some of her birthday presents and promised there were more waiting for her when she came home.
The next day, Netta called Summer and apologized that she wouldn’t be able to visit her on her birthday. She was very sick, she said.
The next day, Netta drove to the Santa Rosa County Veterans Memorial Plaza. After leaving Summer a voicemail telling her she loved her, Netta shot herself.
When Summer read about Drew Winkler’s suicide on Memorial Day, the pain of her own loss came rushing back.
“I believe that by choosing that location to kill herself, Netta was trying to send a message, just like Drew was,” she said.
Summer has her own theory.
“The military sends you overseas and physically and mentally destroys you,” she said. “Then when you can’t do anything for them, they discard you.”
No more stigma
When people commit suicide, their families are often faced with a dilemma.
Should they list their loved one’s cause of death in their obituary? Traditionally, families have avoided such overt mentions, preferring to use gentle expressions such as “passed away unexpectedly.”
– Drew Winkler’s family didn’t mince words.
“Drew Winkler, age 26, … died Monday, May 30, 2016, Memorial Day, after losing his long 5 year battle with PTSD,” the obituary stated. “He took his life after being unable to continue fighting ‘these demons in my head every day and they are winning.’ ”
Karen and Summer both wanted to mention PTSD and suicide in their spouse’s obituary. Friends and family persuaded them not to, however.
“Some people said it would be in bad taste,” Karen said. “But I wish I had. I’m not ashamed of how my husband died. I want people to know the kind of pain he was in.”
The American flag flies at half-staff every day in front of Karen’s house.
It flies in tribute to her husband and every other veteran who has died in combat or has taken his or her own life.
“They all deserve to be remembered,” Biddle said as she stood in the shadow of the flag pole. “We have to remove the stigma of PTSD. We have to tell the other veterans out there that it’s OK to ask for help.”
(c)2016 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com
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