Navy SEAL’s suicide note helps other vets with brain injuries

One U.S. Navy SEAL’s tragedy pointed to a pattern as details of his suicide including a note that accounted for “worsening” changes in “who I am.”

On Jan. 2, 2019, U.S. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Junior Grade David Metcalf had arranged a number of books about brain injuries beside himself in the garage of his North Carolina home. He had also taped a note on the door before he turned a firearm toward his heart, taking his own life and preserving his brain in the process.

Sunday, the New York Times reported details of that note and what became of the study from the Department of Defense’s Brain Tissue Repository in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Gaps in memory, failing recognition, mood swings, headaches, impulsiveness, fatigue, anxiety, and paranoia were not who I was, but have become who I am,” read the suicide note in part. “Each is worsening.”

“He left an intentional message because he knew things had to change,” said his widow Jamie to the Times.

“David Metcalf’s last act in life was an attempt to send a message — that years as a Navy SEAL had left his brain so damaged that he could barely recognize himself,” detailed the newspaper as it explained the analysis of the serviceman’s brain tissue revealed damage from blast waves of which exposure among his peers was mostly attributed to discharging their own weapons.

“The damage pattern suggested that years of training intended to make SEALs exceptional was leaving some barely able to function. But the message Lieutenant Metcalf sent never got through to the Navy,” explained the report. “No one at the lab told the SEAL leadership what the analysis had found, and the leadership never asked.”

Along with Metcalf’s story, details of the March 12, 2014 suicide of Chief Special Warfare Operator David Collins were shared, and how his widow, Jennifer Collins, had decided to donate his brain for research to help others.

“I wanted to try to find some answers,” she explained as career special operators would experience similar symptoms around age 40.

Analysis from the Defense Department lab determined that six of eight SEALs who had taken their own lives had suffered the same pattern of brain injury. Collins described how her husband was “super anxious, almost paranoid,” and that a break from schedules made him irritated, he struggled with sleep, became introverted, and would regularly forget things like the reason he had re-entered a room.

“People may be getting injured without even realizing it,” said Harvard Medical School chief of brain injury rehabilitation Dr. Daniel Daneshvar. “But over time, it can add up.”

Meanwhile, Metcalf and another servicemember were said to have suffered a different type of damage from the others and, according to the Times, a study of star-shaped helper cells in the brain, known as astrocytes, was forthcoming.

Despite the seeming break in communication as SEAL leadership was reportedly not made aware of the findings, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Keith Davids said in a statement to the outlet, “We have a moral obligation to protect the cognitive health and combat effectiveness of our teammates.”

Kevin Haggerty

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