My husband, Jeff, and I have been married 32 years. We raised two daughters and a son. But for two years, I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, “How many children do you have?” You see, our son Sgt. Dillion Naslund completed suicide on December 10, 2012. He was 25.
As a boy, he’d often get into my makeup and cover his face in camouflage. Dillion and his friends would run around the farm pretending to be army men. It wasn’t a surprise when our 17-year-old son wanted to enlist in the Iowa Army National Guard. But it was 2005. Our country was fighting on two major fronts. He would likely go off to war.
The recruiter sat at our kitchen table for a couple hours, and I wouldn’t sign the papers, allowing Dillion to join.
Finally, he said, “Mom, you know I always wanted to go into the army. Will you please sign? I’ll turn 18 soon, but I really want your blessing.”
So, I signed.
He graduated from high school, and as expected, he deployed for a tour of duty in Iraq and then Afghanistan. When Dillion called, he didn’t want to talk about what he was doing—and likely couldn’t. He just wanted to know every little detail about life at home—a place with happy childhood memories of riding, motorcycles, go-karts and four-wheelers and going fishing with his dad.
When he came back from Afghanistan in the fall of 2011, we expected Dillion would be different. After all, you can’t go to war and not be changed. But there was no way to prepare for what would come next.
He made it home safely, and all seemed well. Weeks turned into months, and we noticed Dillion wasn’t the same. Where was the fun-loving, charming, kind son we once had? The boy with lots of friends? The daredevil who wasn’t scared of anything and often drove me crazy with worry?
I was worried now but for a different reason.
Dillion struggled with transitioning back to civilian life. He became suicidal. He told us, “You don’t know what it’s like—the nightmares, flashbacks. The things I have seen and done!”
He was diagnosed with combat post-traumatic stress disorder. It had a name. We could deal with it.
For the next few months, we thought he was doing better. We were wrong. Dillion just got better at hiding his pain.
One day, I got into an argument with him over finances. He said to me again, “You just don’t get it. You don’t know what it’s like.”
I left his house. That night, December 10, 2012, he shot himself in the chest on a gravel road.
Dillion thought he was alone in what he was going through. He wasn’t. After his death, we learned that 20 veterans a day die by suicide. We also learned that there are services and organizations dedicated to helping veterans and their families. But it was too late.
We wanted others to know there is help, and there is hope.
Three years ago, we teamed up with Howard and Jean Somers of San Diego, who had lost their veteran son to suicide too, and we formed Operation Engage America, a nonprofit that connects veterans and their families to the resources they need.
Not any one organization or resource is going to end the epidemic of veteran suicide, but together, we can make a difference. Each year, we host several events in Iowa and California and continue to expand into more communities, uniting veterans’ services under one roof for a day and bringing awareness to challenges our military men and women face when they come home.
I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have as a suicide loss survivor.
After Dillion’s death, I didn’t want to leave the house for weeks, partly because of the stigma surrounding the situation. Finally, I decided I should go to town and get a haircut, buy some groceries, do a little shopping. It was time.
Right away, when I went to the salon, I saw some ladies whispering and one pointed at me, thinking I couldn’t see. Next stop, Walgreens. Someone I know fairly well turned around as fast as she could when she saw me in one of the aisles. Next, the grocery store. The cashier’s nervous, fumbling hands sent one item after another across the scanner.
I wondered if it was always going to be this way—people avoiding me at every turn. I just wanted to go home and cry. Thankfully, it was a 20-mile drive. By the time I got there, I decided to sit down and write this note on Facebook instead:
When you see me in public…
It’s okay to say, “Hi Lisa, how are you doing?” I’m not going to melt.
It’s okay to say, “Sorry about your son.” I’m not going to melt.
It’s okay to say, “I remember Dillion doing this and that.” I’m not going to melt.
It’s okay to say, “I want to give you a hug.” I’m not going to melt.
I have been in your shoes before. But please don’t hurry and turn around and get to the next aisle as fast as you can. Please don’t stare. Please don’t whisper after I walk by. That hurts. You’re not going to say something stupid by just saying something. I hope this makes it easier for you all.
The next time I went to town, everyone I ran into did exactly as I said.
But that didn’t stop the internal struggle.
For about two years, I was haunted by the argument we had on the day he died. I was overwhelmed by loss and feeling empty inside, feeling as though my God had abandoned me.
After Dillion’s death, someone felt the need to inform me, “You know he didn’t go to heaven, don’t you?” I kindly responded by taking her by the hand, gently patting it and saying, “I believe the Bible says something about ‘Do not judge, lest ye be judged.’ Have a nice day.” I walked away while she stood there with her mouth wide open.
My faith was shaken but not broken.
Yet, at times, I couldn’t help but wonder where we went wrong with Dillion. I blamed myself, thinking, “If only he would have talked to me, if only I could have understood, maybe he would still be here.”
The truth is that we are not to be blamed for a loved one’s suicide. I blame the PTSD and depression. I place responsibility on Dillion.
And now, I have a responsibility.
That dark day in December, our family was changed forever. Looking back at the weeks and months after Dillion died, our poor daughters had lost their brother and surely felt as though they had lost their parents too.
On one of those days when I was overcome by grief, our 4-year-old grandson came to visit. He showed up full of energy, ready to play with Gigi—goofy grandma. But how could I play? He wasn’t at our house for long when my sadness wiped the smile from his face. Thankfully, I had my wits about me and noticed.
Looking at what was right in front of me, he deserved to have Gigi and Papa. Our daughters deserved to have Mom and Dad.
We have three children.
Lisa Naslund is the director of Operation Engage America, a nonprofit organization that connects veterans and their families with the services and resources they need.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 at Be Yoga Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Little Did I Know.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.