As an Army medic, Ray Burnside was called upon to save many lives during two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to administering care that included performing emergency surgery on fellow soldiers in combat, he was credited with providing medical help to more than 4,000 Iraqis and veterinary services to 2,000 head of livestock.
His humanitarian efforts built up the kind of trust and loyalty among Iraqi civilians that helped the U.S. military gain critical access to key tribal leaders, officials said in a letter awarding him the Bronze Star.
But the one life Burnside could not repair or save was his own. Beneath his man-of-steel exterior, the sensitive young Sonoma County native who as a teenager was a pacifist and handed out food to homeless people in Old Courthouse Square was imploding into a thousand little pieces.
In the small hours of the morning on Jan. 27, nearly four years after he was honorably discharged and returned home to Santa Rosa, Burnside checked into a Santa Rosa motel and texted his mother, Lynnette Casey, that he had a rope with which to hang himself.
He had made many such threats before. While she called police and drove to the motel, expecting to soothe him and offer support and reassurance as she had countless times since he left the military, he took his own life.
He had just celebrated his 30th birthday. His cause of death, his family asserts, was post-traumatic stress disorder.
An estimated 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD, and according to an often-cited figure from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans a day kill themselves. The real figure could be higher since some of the states with the largest numbers of veterans were not surveyed, said Jason Roncoroni, executive director of the North Carolina-based Stop Soldier Suicide. The nonprofit group connects veterans across the country with services and support and looks for new and alternative ways to treat a debilitating and seemingly intractable mental disorder that can leave vets paralyzed by anxiety and struggling to function.
That was the case with Burnside, who returned from service in 2012 with dreams of going to college, traveling the world and one day starting his own nonprofit organization to help others. Instead, his efforts were thwarted by persistent anxiety that prevented him from sleeping or holding a job and even made it hard to sit in a classroom full of people, his family said. He self-medicated with alcohol, becoming so dependent he could barely go a couple of hours without a drink. He was circumspect with his feelings as he slowly devolved. His family tried everything they could to get him help, but it was an uphill climb both finding services and getting Burnside to admit he needed help.
“My brother was helping civilians and also his fellow soldiers. But at the same time, he was witnessing a lot of death and devastation that had a lot to do with what ended up happening to him,” said Jaime Burnside, who was just reconnecting with her older brother after returning from a stint in the Peace Corps in January.
“He would describe events that were just horrific. No person needs to see children and women and people have their lives taken due to events such as war. And his fellow soldiers, as well, got killed beside him. As a medic, he was first at the scene saving people’s lives, and at the same time there were people who were not able to be saved.”