Joshua Omvig
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Saturday, May 13, 2006 6:10 AM CDT 

Parents push for solider's story to continue beyond suicide 

By DENNIS MAGEE, Courier Regional Editor 

First in a series

GRUNDY CENTER --- He always intended to be a policeman. To get there --- with his parents' guidance --- Josh Omvig became a soldier.

"He was a nice young man," Ellen says.

A mother's pained love.

"He was a pretty straight arrow," Randy says.

A father's wounded joy.

They knew Josh experienced combat in Iraq as an Army reservist. By connecting the dots, they concluded their son probably participated vigorously. Too late, they realized the person they got back from the war on terrorism was not the young man they sent.

Sadly, they say, post-traumatic stress disorder was only a vague concept until they saw Josh's world unravel.

"In retrospect, we probably should have pushed harder," Randy says.

His tone conveys little confidence the couple actually believe they could have saved their boy. As they see it, odds weighed heavily against their son.

"I keep thinking about it," Randy says. "But it was a no-win situation for Josh."

The soldier told his mother once he died in Iraq. But he kept living for another year.

Burning desire

Josh, a former Boy Scout with a newspaper route, wanted to join the military early. His parents refused to sign paperwork required of a 17-year-old and made him wait.

"'It is an adult decision. It is seven years of your life,'" Randy remembers telling his son.

Later, the couple insisted their son investigate several branches of the armed forces before making a commitment. And they helped.

"Josh was pretty focused," Randy says.

He enlisted with the 339th Military Police Company based in Davenport.

"When he signed up they hadn't been activated in more than 30 years," Randy says.

The choice was logical for an aspiring policeman or sheriff's deputy.

"He figured the best way to get some experience was to go into the reserves," Randy says.

Josh graduated a semester early from Grundy Center High School. Within two days he was training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

The company deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, guarding suspected members of al Qaida. But Josh was not yet ready. Meanwhile, he enrolled in law enforcement courses at Hawkeye Community College.

"But sitting in the classroom was kind of tough on him," Randy says.

Josh seemed to enjoy much more the ride-alongs he arranged with sheriff's deputies in Tama, Grundy and Hardin counties.

"He liked the action part of it," Randy says.

Josh started working for a security company in Des Moines and became a supervisor. He moved to Altoona.

In 2003, the soldiers in the 339th --- back from Cuba --- and Josh and his parents anticipated what lay ahead.

"They kept telling them all summer, 'You're going to be activated real soon ... ,'" Ellen says. "That went on for months."

Josh got ready, had his teeth checked and deposited DNA samples with the military. Officials activated the 339th once again in December 2003 and the company deployed to Iraq in February 2004.

The soldiers' mission included guarding people and enemy munitions. They at times also protected convoys. Shifts were 15 hours long. Their camp at one point was mortared daily.

Temperatures inside tents exceeded 100 degrees at night, Josh said, and soldiers resorted to flea collars on their beds and around ankles to stop the pests. But that didn't work too well, Ellen says, because the toxic chemicals irritated the soldiers' skin.

"It was pretty rough conditions for them," Randy says.

At the time, the couple didn't know where their son was. They later learned he served in the Sunni Triangle, a region northwest of Baghdad and home to many of Saddam Hussein's most loyal followers.

The 339th worked out of a "forward operating base," according to the Omvigs. There were no showers and only sporadic electrical service, Josh said. Telephone reception was poor and calls were frequently interrupted.

Soldiers in the company encountered close combat in urban conditions. Josh mentioned tall buildings crowding streets narrower than H Avenue where his parents lived in Grundy Center. Gunmen would pop up in windows a few feet away from convoys. Josh indicated a handgun might have been more effective than the grenade launcher he manned.

Josh never talked about killing anyone but said the 339th came under fire. He was usually in the company's lead vehicle and "he was their best shot," Randy says.

The couple received one letter from their son in 11 months. Josh later said he was firing off notes every month. Josh also occasionally skipped opportunities to call home, at least in part to allow fellow soldiers with spouses and children access to available phones.

"Another reason was he said it was too hard talking to us," Ellen says.

Break in the action

In early September 2004, Josh returned to Grundy County for a few days of rest and relaxation. He found little of either, according to his parents.

"He shook for three days," Randy says.

He remained vigilant and seemed unable to let down his guard.

"He was in pretty bad shape when he got back," Randy says.

The effects were apparent enough that others noticed. One of Josh's first desires was a meal at McDonald's. While there, the family encountered a veteran of the Vietnam War.

The older man saw the jitters and addressed Josh.

"'I know. It will get better. Thank you for your service,'" Ellen remembers the man saying.

Josh only shared information about Iraq in one- or two-sentence fragments at a time. But as they spent time together, his parents learned driving presented perceived threats to the veteran. Deer along the road. Headlights in the review mirror. Ordinary items, like culverts, that to Josh represented hiding places.

"His head was on a pivot," Randy says.

While home, Josh withdrew periodically from family festivities.

"'You've got to forgive me. But I can't be around people too much,'" Ellen remembers him saying.

But he was glad to be in Grundy Center.

"He kept saying, 'I'm so happy to be home,'" Ellen says.

Randy remembers Josh taking time to smell flowers and touch leaves still hanging on trees. He talked little about what he had experienced. Peace eluded Josh, especially at night.

"Of course, you heard him. The bad dreams," Ellen says.

Their son would call out while sleeping, usually "No" or "Stop" or some other military command.

"He didn't really want to go back. But he didn't want to leave his buddies either," Randy says.

Josh fulfilled his obligation. He returned to Iraq after about 10 days.

"We just got him pretty well rested and fed," Ellen says.

The couple was concerned. Looking back, they realize they witnessed the serious effects of combat-stress reaction.

"'I'm fine. I can handle it. I've got it under control,'" Ellen remembers Josh repeating several times.

"I didn't know enough," she adds.

"And he was putting on a pretty good act for us," Randy says.

Headed home

Josh completed his tour of duty in Iraq on his 21st birthday in November 2004. He later told his parents the company expected to spend three weeks in Kuwait. At another point, Josh believed he would be at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for three months.

In reality, the soldiers were in Iowa within a week.

As the Omvigs explain the transition, Josh "went from fifth gear to first gear" in a few days.

For many troops returning to the United States, the fastest way out is the preferred path. Though sick, Josh declined an opportunity to visit the infirmary in Wisconsin.

Randy explains a soldier's option at that point.

"Do I say yes and have to stay, or do I say no and go home to my family?"

When he arrived in Iowa, the next day was Thanksgiving. On Friday, Josh returned to work in Des Moines.

Ellen and Randy knew their son was suffering. Josh, however, continued to assert he could handle the situation. He expressed concern that talking with an Army counselor, admitting a mental health issue, conceding he needed help would damage his career.

"We even tried to get him to go get private help that we would pay for," Ellen says. "He said, 'Nope. They will find out.'"

Ellen suggested seeking therapy by using an assumed name. Josh rejected the idea, shocked his mother might condone lying.

The specifics about what troubled their son and to what extent remained a mystery.

"You get short conversations," Ellen says. "Loving and kind. But short."

Other veterans later told Randy and Ellen that Josh at times appeared to want to discuss something. The veterans did not press the issue, giving the soldier space to proceed at his pace. Josh inevitably let the moments pass, the veterans said.

The security firm put out pink slips and Josh was out of work. He moved into his parents' home in Grundy Center and --- still considering a career in law enforcement --- enrolled at Ellsworth Community College.

While waiting for classes to begin, Josh commuted to a part-time job in Des Moines. At one point, he shared a conversation with his father, notable because of its length and content.

"'Dad, I just want to be happy like you,'" Randy remembers.

Josh repeated the thought several times.

An aunt, Julie Westly of Sioux City, and others in the family also knew about Josh's "deep, deep depression."

"We all encouraged him to get help. But he was so afraid because he thought his career would be over," Westly says.

Weeks played out, and casual observers in Grundy Center might not have noticed any change in Josh. He started helping as a crossing guard for the elementary school, setting out stop signs. He volunteered with the Grundy Center Fire Department, bounding out of the Omvigs' home when his pager sounded.

"He loved it. He loved to help people," Randy says.

Getting up in the night for an emergency hardly seemed an inconvenience.

"'Well I don't sleep anyway, Mom,'" Ellen remembers him saying.

Josh altered his career goal slightly. He still wanted to be a policeman, but in a small community.

"Mostly, he wanted to be happy," Randy says. "I knew what he meant."

Besides restless nights, Josh experienced flashbacks. Unfamiliar sounds sparked an undeniable urge to examine his parents' property --- in military terms, to secure the perimeter.

Ellen and Randy know Josh would circle their lot. He may have gone farther into the neighborhood.

"I don't know. We didn't follow him," Ellen says,.

Josh occasionally shared thoughts that his mother did not understand.

"'I don't want you to hate me,'" she remembers him saying.

At the time, Ellen interpreted the comment as a reflection on tasks performed in combat. Attempts to reassure that she would never hate her son were only marginally effective.

"'What you had to do over there is what you had to do to survive,'" Ellen remembers saying.

Josh admitted another problem.

"He talked about hearing voices, seeing faces," Randy says.

Ellen pressed her son on one occasion about what he meant.

"He said Iraqi people."

Bad to worse

Josh had an ally in Iraq. Ellen and Randy know him only as Ray.

The soldiers were assigned to each other as battle buddies during boot camp because they were standing in line together.

"They ended up good friends," Ellen says.

Toward the end of December, Josh apparently learned Ray had been killed in Iraq. The soldier's death followed unfortunately close to the funeral for Jimmie Kitch, Ellen's mother.

On Dec. 21, Josh went out drinking, an uncharacteristic event, according to his father and others.

"I've never seen him drink a beer," Westly says.

At some point during the evening, Josh's truck and another vehicle went into a ditch along Orange Road and got stuck in snow. Josh and the other driver left the area. When they returned in a third car with two other people, a police officer from Hudson and Black Hawk County sheriff's deputies were at the scene.

According to their report, the deputies smelled alcohol on Josh's breath and he failed two of three field sobriety tests. They arrested Josh for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Josh got out of the Black Hawk County Jail at 9 a.m. Ellen remembers by 11 he was home in Grundy Center. It was a Thursday.

He shaved and put on his desert fatigues. He said he wouldn't be going to work. At the time, Ellen remembered a conversation about visiting a friend and didn't think anything unusual. There was also mention of helping a recruiter talk with prospective young men and women, which Josh had done in the past.

He asked his mother for their pastor's telephone number. And a sheet of paper. He wanted to write a few things down.

Ellen tore a piece out of a spiral notebook, shearing off one corner. Josh said the damaged page was good enough. Ellen remembers her son's demeanor as calm.

Josh later handed his mother a note and went out a back door. Ellen read the words but didn't understand. Josh described joining his buddies. She at first thought that meant re-enlisting, a possibility Josh had entertained.

She went after him.

"I wanted him to talk to his dad," Ellen says.

"Then it finally hit her what he was talking about," Randy adds.

Josh was in his truck. The doors were locked. Ellen pleaded with her son to not do what he was contemplating. Her appeals turned to screams.

Ellen did not the time Josh had already called a friend, police officer Terry Oltman. He asked Oltman to stop by the house in a few minutes.

Seeing what was developing, Oltman ordered Ellen away from the car, she remembers. Ellen refused to leave her son.

Josh raised a handgun and fired a single shot. He turned his head slightly to avoid possibly injuring his mother.

"I just can't believe how much can happen in one minute," Ellen says.

Father and mother want information in their son's suicide note held privately. Save for the closing thought:

"I will always love you. Josh."

The family buried their soldier with help from the U.S. Army Reserve 339th Military Police Company. Josh Omvig was 22.

"He thought it would get better because he was home," Westly says. "And it never got better. It got worse."

Josh told his mother once he died in Iraq. But he kept living for another year.

Contact Dennis Magee at <>.

Josh's Story as reported by Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register  
Pair help Iraq veterans 'survive peace'

An Iowa couple's son killed himself while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 'We can't ignore the others,' they say.


05/12/06 -- " Des Moines Register -- Grundy Center, Ia. - 

The secrets that troubled veterans confide to Randy and Ellen Omvig weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Their son, Joshua, a 22-year-old Iraq veteran, was so anxious to clear his mind of the trauma of war that he killed himself in front of his screaming mother. A Web site they created in his memory <>has become a whispering wall of sorts, a safe place where other soldiers confess their silent suffering.

"It's been hundreds a day - so many heartbreaking stories," Ellen Omvig said, holding on her lap the note her son left, explaining his own torment. "It's like the same story over and over again, just different names, different towns. A lot of them will make you cry, there's so much pain."

The Omvigs, of Grundy Center, will be at the State Capitol Rotunda today with Congressman Leonard Boswell and Gen. Wesley Clark, who will speak at 3:30 p.m. on the need for better services for troops with post-traumatic stress disorder, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You know the phrase you've got to be careful of?" Randy Omvig said. He paused, his breathing ragged. "When they say: 'I'm fine. I can handle it.' That means: 'I'm having trouble.' "

It took four months for the Omvigs, who are intensely private, churchgoing Republicans, to agree to share Josh's story publicly.

Randy Omvig, a wrestling coach with a rock-like stature and stoic personality, nearly skipped his son's funeral in December because, he told himself, he couldn't have everyone see him break down. His wife has been unable to work full time since a semi hit her car eight years ago, and these days she is even more fragile.

"The time to help Josh is over," Randy Omvig said, and this time his bass voice was unwavering.

"But we can't ignore the others. They're coming back here safe. We've got to help them survive the peace."

Messages of torment

The messages come in the dead of night, from insomniacs who tell the Omvigs that they nurse a deep need to be alone. They trust no one but their combat buddies. They can't kick the flashbacks and nightmares. They lose their temper at work. A few have admitted they expect to divorce soon. Some have lashed out with their fists. Some say getting drunk seems to be their only relief.

And some have felt the scratch of rope around their neck or the chill of a gun muzzle on their head.

"Instead of killing themselves, they'd rather re-enlist and get shot," said Josh's aunt, Julie Westly of Sioux City, who helps the Omvigs keep up with the 15 to 50 e-mails that arrive daily from soldiers and families in Iowa and elsewhere.

"They'd rather die with honor," Westly said.

That was Josh's plan, his family said. He thought diving back into the war zone would ease his restlessness - and spare some other soldier from being separated from family.

The kid known as the joker who cracked everyone up barely cracked a smile after he got home in November after 11 months of high-level security work north of Baghdad.

Josh, who was with the U.S. Army Reserve 339th Military Police Company of Davenport, said he felt honored to defend his country, and he knew why he had to do the things he did. But he was never able to recover from them.

"He'd say, 'Mom, I don't want you to hate me,' " Ellen Omvig recalled, her eyes red and tired behind delicate glasses. "I'd say, 'How could we hate you? You were in the war.' "

Every time he left the house, he hugged his parents fiercely and said he loved them.

Unable to sleep, he would work himself into exhaustion, pulling double shifts as a security guard in the skywalks of Des Moines before driving 90 miles to Grundy Center. Then he'd hide out in his bedroom, playing war video games with loud music in his headphones.

At least his hands had stopped shaking. For a while, he couldn't button his clothing or grasp items in his pockets. He'd see something on the side of the road and for a few seconds his racing heart told him it could be a bomb. He was startled by sudden movements, like a bird landing on a stop sign.

A final note

The shaking stopped, but the hyper-vigilance didn't. And his mood worsened.

He refused to go to counseling. He was certain the Army would find out, and that there would be repercussions. He figured that with his symptoms, his goal to be a police officer was ruined.

Four days before Christmas, Josh went out drinking. A friend whose car had slid into a ditch in Black Hawk County called him for help, and Josh was arrested for first-offense operating while intoxicated.

When he got home in the morning, he shaved, changed into his desert uniform, and told his mom the recruiter had asked him to tag along to meet some possible recruits.

Ellen Omvig detected nothing unusual about his behavior, and told him she was going to hop in the shower. Josh casually handed her a note, saying, "You can read it later," and walked out the door.

"Mom & Dad," she read. "Don't think this is because of you. You did the best you could with me. The faces and the voices just won't go away."

He's re-enlisting, she thought.

"... I will always love you. Josh."

She sprinted after him, figuring she could persuade him not to sign anything until he talked it over with his father.

And then the realization hit her, and she was yelling for Josh to stop, stop, stop, stop. She fumbled for the locked door handle of his pickup, grabbed the side-view mirror, pleading.

"Terry's coming," Josh told her. "He'll take care of it."

Ellen Omvig saw the handgun. As supervisor of his security crew, Josh was permitted to carry one.

She was screaming, and Josh kept telling her she didn't understand. His battle buddy had been killed, he said.

His parents aren't sure how he knew that. Maybe he got a letter. Neither parent has entered his bedroom since he died.

Josh kept repeating that he should have been there taking care of him. He had to be with him now. He said he'd been dead ever since he left Iraq.

"His eyes were just dark, and it was like he wasn't really there," Ellen Omvig recalled, her hands hugging her sides, not touching the tears sliding down her face. "I said, 'No! Your dad's counting on you to take care of me if anything happens to him.' And that's when he broke and the pain and the anguish was so clear and he said, 'How can I take care of you when I can't take care of myself?' "

Then a squad car rolled up, Ellen Omvig said. Josh had telephoned police officer Terry Oltman and asked him to be at the Omvig house in 10 minutes. Josh, a reserve officer and volunteer firefighter, knew every cop in town. "Go!" Josh ordered his mother.

Oltman was shouting for Ellen Omvig to get away, but she wouldn't leave her son, and Josh angled his head so the bullet's path wasn't aimed at his mother.

That was Dec. 22, 2005.

Helping the living

It never hit Ellen and Randy Omvig until later that Josh's problems were classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. After posting information at, they've heard from military families worldwide who say the problem is extensive.

"It's a terrible thing," Ellen Omvig said. "There are a ton of things that can be done so that people can live with it and at least put it on the back burner in their lives instead of letting it be the driving force in their lives and being permanently disabled."

The Omvigs think the U.S. military isn't doing enough to address veterans' mental health or to ease the stigma of getting treatment.

Officials with the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense said they have taken steps to offer more mental health services, but service members are not always receptive to that.

A Government Accountability Office report issued Thursday states that of returning troops found to be at risk for PTSD, 88 percent were not referred by government health care providers for further help.

"We're not political one way or another about should we be over there, should we not be over there," Randy Omvig said. "We hear they're on a 'humanitarian mission.' There must also be a humanitarian mission when they get home. We can't let another generation suffer the way the Vietnam generation suffers."

Now the Omvigs write to politicians and military officials, applying pressure. When Boswell's office called Wednesday, they agreed to come to the Capitol.

"I'm willing to talk to anybody I have to," Randy said. "This isn't going to end in a year."

© 2006, The Des Moines Register.


Column for the week of July 17, 2006

NOW HR 327 in the House,
S 479 in the Senate

Boswell Briefing...
By Congressman Leonard Boswell

Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

"As a fellow veteran, I am honored to announce I recently introduced the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act."

It is estimated almost 1,000 veterans receiving care from Department of Veterans Affairs commit suicide each year. Since March 2003, 79 individuals, having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, have committed suicide. I am extremely troubled these men and women did not receive the proper attention they needed. Suicide rates for soldiers in Iraq are higher than the suicide rates during the Gulf War or the Vietnam War.

As a fellow veteran, I am honored to announce I recently introduced the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act. If enacted, this legislation woulddirect the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a comprehensive program to regularly screen and monitor all veterans for risk factors of suicide. This bill would also set up a tracking and counseling referral system to ensure all veterans deemed a suicide risk would receive the appropriate help. In addition, this legislation would provide 24-hour mental health care for veterans who are found to be at risk for suicide and would provide education and training for all VA staff, contractors, and medical personnel who have interaction with veterans.

This legislation grew out of the tragic death of Joshua Omvig from Grundy Center, Iowa who took his life after returning home from an 11-month tour in Iraq. Not all wounds inflected in combat are visible. A simple screening and tracking process could have provided Joshua with the counseling he needed, saving his life. We must now protect those who have kept us safe for so long.

Our men and women in uniform and their families have made many sacrifices for our country, and we must ensure they receive the proper care and treatment once they return home.

As a Vietnam Veteran, I honor the men and women currently serving our nation around the world. During the upcoming months of the 109th Congress, I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure all veterans are given the proper care they need. For more information on suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website at  . If you or someone you know are in a crisis please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you have comments or are having difficulty with a federal agency call my office toll-free 1-888-432-1984

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