In memory of Dillion

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Lisa and Jeff Naslund of Galva have an unusual message on her answering machine.

If you are a soldier, it says, talk to us.

The talking still isn't easy, says Lisa, her voice choking with emotion as she speaks of her son Dillion, a decorated veteran of action in Iraq and Afghanistan, who died alone on a gravel road near Storm Lake, pulling the trigger on a gunshot crashing through his chest.

He was 25, and had lived a lot of hell in a short time.

Dillion's parents have since taken on a war of their own - fighting to connect other troubled veterans and their families with services that can help. Speaking out about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder being suffered by veterans such as Dillion as they struggle to fit into life back on the homefront.

Their commitment amazes me. I ran into Lisa recently, at an event for one of the presidential candidates in Storm Lake, where she was pleading for better care for those who have served their country. I hope they are listening.

It would have been easy to descend into private grief when their son died. But the Naslunds are made of stern stuff. They worked with a producer to film a Public Television documentary on Dillion's life and death. They took on the huge job of organizing veterans fairs in two different states that connect vets with the services they made need. And yes, they answer those calls.

Their message is a simple one: Get help.

"We're not counselors or therapists, we're just a family that has been broken and has had to live this nightmare," Lisa says. "We just want to reach out to other soldiers and let them know that there is help available.

"One thing, Dillion always felt that he was alone. We've since found that there are so many people out there with these feelings. PTSD is just beginning to be understood. When you have a soldier suffering, it's a family issue too. It's a battle," Lisa says.

It would be wise not to forget.

Dillion had graduated from Galva-Holstein in 2006, fulfilling a dream he'd had since childhood to serve in the military, the third generation of his family to serve overseas.

"He loved being in the military, and we're told he was very good at it," Lisa says.

A proud member of the storied local Guard unit known as the Red Bulls, he had been deployed for about a year with each of his two tours of duty.

Dillion would call home from the war zones when he could, using the code the family had worked out. Lisa was "Mama Bear," and she looked forward to the faint voice of "Baby Bear" to know that he was okay.

In the fall of 2011, Dillion returned home, and set about re-connecting with friends and family, working a job in concrete, trying to pick up life where it had left off when he went to war still a teenager.

He seemed to enjoy the welcome home, but wasn't quite the same happy-go-lucky Dillion that everyone remembered. He suffered nightmares, and sometimes things around him would trigger his brain and thrust him into battlefront flashbacks. His drinking became destructive, his sleep sporadic. Dillion didn't like to talk about his demons, feeling a soldier should be strong and able to handle issues on his own. The family began to realize the depth of his despair when they found a suicidal note he was writing. They got him to a VA hospital in Sioux Falls, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, released after a few days. For a while, the counseling and medication seemed to help.

"It wasn't enough. It was too much, too big, too fast," Lisa says.

Dillion didn't leave much of an explanation for his fatal decision.

"The things these people have endured, the things they have had to see... we can't even fathom it," Lisa says. "Most soldiers don't talk about it that much. It's hard for the rest of us to understand, since we haven't gone through that. It's such a deep issue."

Lisa fights back tears as she remembers that she had argued with her son on the day he died, trying a tough-love approach to convince him to let others help. "He said to me, 'Mom, you don't get it, you don't understand.' I didn't understand, because I haven't experienced what he had. All I could tell him is that we were trying to help him," she said.

It took time to realize that family, a girlfriend, friends were not to blame for the gunshot that changed all of their lives.

It was "The Beast," she says. That's how some soldiers think of the feelings they are experiencing, not knowing that it is a diagnosed, treatable disorder.

"It's an empty feeling when you don't know how to help," Lisa said of the dark times.

A funeral was held in the gym at the school Dillion had attended, with a flag-draped coffin and full military rites.

More former or current citizen soldiers from Iowa have reportedly taken their own lives since the time of Dillion's death.

"Last I heard, we were losing soldiers at the rate of 22 a day to suicides. After losing Dillion, it was just so awful to hear those numbers and know what those families are going through. We felt that we had to reach out if we could to help others. It would be a wonderful legacy to Dillion if other lives could be saved."

Since the loss of Dillion, several former soldiers reacted to the news or contact with the family by seeking out help themselves.

These days, Lisa shelters herself somewhat from the news, full of potential conflicts. Still, the family is not bitter toward the military or its missions.

"PTSD is a symptom coming from war and the toll that it has. Dillion wanted to join. We've never been against the military - in fact it is the military that has completely wrapped its arms around us, and has been there for us in so many ways."

Buena Vista County has done a great thing by joining the Home Base Iowa program. It will help veterans find jobs, and homes, in our communities. But that may not be all that some of them need, and we should prepare ourselves for that, too.