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The war followed them home

Two Iraqi war vets tried to cope with the stress and pain of what they saw. They didn’t make it. They are not alone.

The family of Timothy Gill, a Philly firefighter and Iraq war veteran who committed suicide. From the foreground: his mother Marie Gill; wife Maria Gill; sister Cheryl Philyaw; and older brother William Gill. The family says he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
The family of Timothy Gill, a Philly firefighter and Iraq war veteran who committed suicide. From the foreground: his mother Marie Gill; wife Maria Gill; sister Cheryl Philyaw; and older brother William Gill. The family says he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read more

THE LITTLE GIRL could coax a smile from Tim Gill even when he had none left.

She'd seen Gill, a Philadelphia firefighter who served in Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard, sprint to the sink, doubled over with nausea. She whispered when Gill's headaches came and tiptoed during his bad dreams, but he remained the man she adored most.

A few days before the funeral, she drew a picture of Gill, a stick figure sticking out its tongue, smiling for her one last time.

"DADDY," 4-year-old Amanda Gill wrote above the figure's head.

Sgt. Timothy M. Gill, 38, an Archbishop Ryan High School grad, was a chemical-operations specialist with the Guard's 128th Chemical Company on Southampton Road in the Far Northeast.

When he returned to the United States in 2006, he rejoined the Fire Department, got married and had Amanda, his second daughter. But Iraq had changed Gill, his family said, and he brought back a burden he ultimately couldn't bear.

"He was Tim when he left, happy-go-lucky," his mother, Marie Gill, said. "He was not Tim when he came back."

On Sept. 29, Tim sent text messages to his wife, Maria, and his teenage daughter, Mone. He texted his captain at Engine 78, asking him to make sure family members didn't find him. Then just before noon, Tim called 9-1-1 and became, in the eyes of his family, another war casualty.

'I wish it was me, Mom'

The Gills gathered around the dining-room table in Tim and Maria's home near Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia on a weekday last month to talk about Tim's fight with post-traumatic stress disorder. In another home, a little more than 20 miles away, in Gloucester Township, N.J., another mother talked about PTSD, too, admiring the photo of her "handsome" Marine that hung on the wall.

"Matt used to say, 'Don't worry, Mom, I'll beat this,' but then all of a sudden they're in a black hole and they're depressed," Rita Cooey said, her hands clasped. "They don't see a way out."

In high school at nearby Highland Regional, Matthew McCart Cooey overcame brain tumors that affected his vision to become the football team's leading tackler. He graduated in 2003, joined the Marine Corps and later spent seven months in Iraq, clearing improvised explosive devices.

When he came back to the U.S., Matt enrolled at Florida International University in Miami and began PTSD counseling there, his mother said. He and his high-school sweetheart got divorced when he came back, his mother said, and Matt struggled to find work after college and the proper medications for PTSD.

Sometimes, Matt would tell his mother about a friend he lost in Iraq, a soldier who'd died when an IED exploded up the road ahead of him.

"He had a real hard time with that one," his mother said. "He'd say, 'I wish it was me, Mom, because he had kids.' "

Tim and Matt were among the 17,000 veterans treated in the mental-health program at the Philadelphia VA Clinic last year, both going for weekly PTSD counseling sessions.

The positive attitude Matt deployed against PTSD came undone in the summer of 2012, when, after a party, he donned his military fatigues, loaded a rifle and began to fire rounds inside the Camden County house he shared with his girlfriend. He woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed, facing serious charges.

"He didn't remember anything about it. He had just gotten a good job with New York Life, and he was crying, saying his career is over," his mother recalled.

Staff Sgt. Matthew McCart Cooey took his own life on Dec. 15, 2012, a day before his 28th birthday, after several unsuccessful attempts. Rita Cooey thought his therapists should have seen it coming.

"Matt had us convinced he was getting help and getting better," she said.

Vet suicides: 22 a day

Suicide is on the rise throughout the United States, but among active-duty military personnel, suicide reached epidemic numbers in 2012, with 349 taking their own lives. The most recent Department of Defense statistics show a 22 percent decrease from last year, however, with 245 suicides by active-duty service members as of Oct. 27.

Statistics about suicide among veterans back in civilian life, like Tim and Matt, are not available throughout the entire country. Only 21 states contributed to a Department of Veterans Affairs report on suicides that was released in February. That report found that the "estimated" number of veterans taking their lives every day ranged from a low of 18 in 2007 to 22 in both 2009 and 2010. Newer data are not yet available.

The vast majority of veteran suicides are committed by men older than 50, the report showed. Tim Gill's father, a Vietnam veteran, broke his neck diving into what he thought was a foxhole inside the family's home. He gets treatment for PTSD at the Philadelphia VA, too.

"He knew what Tim was going through," Marie said of her husband. "When Tim returned from Iraq, his father said, 'Go get help.' "

Dr. David Oslin, chief of behavioral health at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, said addressing suicidal behavior among older veterans is often more successful.

"In younger folks suffering from PTSD after Iraq and Afghanistan, there's a lot more impulsivity, and that adds another unexplainable layer to this," Oslin said. "It becomes more of a shock to everybody involved, even their therapist."

The Gills said they didn't know how to handle Tim's worst moments, unsure of how much they needed to worry, feeling left in the dark by the people charged with helping him. Tim, permanently disabled from a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, wasn't in denial about PTSD, his family said, but didn't share much, either.

Oslin said families can be involved in the treatment process, but only if the veteran allows it.

Tim was a wreck whenever fireworks went off, his family said, and he seemed haunted by a confrontation between his tank and a car along an Iraqi supply route. Once, while his own car was stopped beneath a busy overpass near the Neshaminy Mall, Tim's wife, Maria, watched him grip the steering wheel, lost in something she couldn't see, his knuckles bone white.

"I saw that change come over him. He was at attention, ready to go for an attack. Then it subsided and a tear just came down," she said, tracing a line down her face.

Maria, a teacher at a Catholic grammar school, blushed recalling better times before the war, her petite hands resting on her spiderweb tablecloth, turning a wedding ring around and around on her finger. She met Tim in an Irish pub, she said with a sheepish smile, but he had his Fire Department uniform and it was hard to resist.

From her seat in the dining room, Maria could see their daughter's drawing, pinned to the wall in the kitchen.

"In the beginning, I didn't say anything to her," Maria said, her lips trembling. "I took her upstairs to the bedroom and we laid down and I said, 'You know how Daddy gets sick a lot? Well, his head was hurting and he went up to heaven and he's not sick anymore.' "

'I'm sorry'

The morning Tim died, he also left a voice mail with Judd Gillin, a staff sergeant with the Pennsylvania National Guard from Johnstown who'd spent nearly every day with him in Iraq, clearing roads in an M1 Abrams tank.

Gillin, 34, is a new father, carrying the weight of his own time at war while coping with the recent loss of his friend. "I'm sorry" is all he could make out from Tim's voice mail.

"I don't think anybody that serves overseas in these types of situations is not affected by PTSD," Gillin said.

A 2008 RAND Corp. study found that nearly 20 percent of all veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, but fewer than half seek the ever-increasing treatment options as more light is shed on the problem.

Iraq was "never really quiet," Gillin said. Their Abrams tank was a constant target for rockets, sniper fire, IEDs and even the occasional rock. Gillin was in the Abrams with Tim the day that car approached them head-on. Tim was driving.

"What should I do? What should I do?" he said.

Tim was ordered to maintain course, straight on, Gillin said, but the car stopped at the last minute and tried to go in reverse.

"Where is it? Where is it?"

The Abrams was sitting on the car, ordered to keep going "all the way over," Gillin said. Most of the people escaped, but at least one man was injured, Gillin said, his legs crushed. When the soldiers got out of the tank, seeing the man screaming in agony seemed worse than death.

"Things like this, they change you, change everything about you," Gillin said. "But Tim was doing as best as he could with it. He was a good guy and he loved his family. Sometimes this thing just takes people over."

Even long after he'd been home, fighting fires, playing wing for the department's ice-hockey team and waxing a "sagebrush" Dodge Ram that sure looked "Army green," Tim Gill was at war, losing people he'd grown to love, men who sat right next to him at those PTSD counseling sessions.

"The one that really affected him was a guy named Matt, who was in his VA counseling group. He just talked about that man all the time," Maria said. "He really wanted to get in touch with Matt's family, to let them know how much he'd meant to him. He broke down a couple times about it."

On Tim's Facebook page, there's a picture of him sitting on a dusty tank with a rifle in his hands, staring straight ahead with neither a smile nor scowl. He didn't look like a man who could ever break down. Further down the page, past the photos and the games and TV shows Tim liked, there's a photo of a handsome Marine in uniform, the same serious look on his face. "In Memory of Matthew McCart Cooey" is written beneath it.

The pictures were taken when both Tim and Matt seemed invincible and ready for battle, before they broke down side by side on Thursdays in Philly, trying to carry their burdens, together.