Friends say growing up in Hammond, Indiana, John Chrzanowski was like a lot of kids. A natural-born jokester, he loved motorcycles and barbecuing.
After graduating from Morton High School, he married his high school sweetheart, had a baby boy named Jayden, and was trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life.
“He had talked about going into the military a couple of times. I think I deterred him a couple of times,” said John’s mother Linda Chrzanowski. “After 9-11 he just kept saying if he walks away from it and not serve his country, nobody else would stand up,”
John went off to basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas before heading to Iraq in 2007. He served four years before eventually moving back home in early 2011 to live with his mom.
John was divorced by then but started studying to become a police officer. Linda says her son seemed pretty much the same as before.
“He always carried a smile. If John didn’t have a smile on him, he was probably sick or there was something wrong,” Linda said. “But other than that, he always carried a smile.”
Yet something was wrong with John.
As America marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the country is still reckoning with those who lost their lives – including those far from the battlefield. Last year more U.S. military personnel died from suicide than in combat in the Middle East.
John’s military buddies say their unit often experienced combat and tried their best to cope.
“When we were in Iraq, suicide is a big deal in the military, obviously it’s getting bigger, but we used to joke around about it a lot,” said Rob McGrath, who now lives in Texas. McGrath was in John’s unit and shared an apartment with him at Fort Riley.
“But I took it as a complete joke. I just figured he was trying to scare this girl,” McGrath said.
That girl was fellow Hammond native Laura Lathem, who lived with John in Kansas. Laura didn’t take any of John’s threats as jokes.
“He did try to commit suicide twice in Kansas in front of me,” Lathem said.
Laura says the first attempt happened after a party. John had been drinking, was depressed, and took out his gun.
“I didn’t know what to do because I had never seen a gun in real life. So, I freaked out. I ran upstairs and got a roommate because we lived in a basement of a house with a bunch of army guys. He came downstairs and talked to John and got the gun away from him,” Lathem said.
Lathem eventually returned with John back to Hammond where they lived with his Mom.
But John continued to be haunted by the war, including one battle in an Iraqi village.
“He said that there were children inside the village that he took down and that’s what haunted him every single day,” Lathem said. “I mean, he literally would wake up in the middle of the night sweating and just in panic.”
John’s mom heard the same story.
“He said he was so sorry for what he had done to the children. He didn’t mean to hurt anybody,” Linda Chrzanowski said.
WBEZ wasn’t able to confirm this particular incident, but it seems clear that John was struggling to adjust to civilian life. In June 2011 Laura and John broke up and she moved out.
A month later, with his mom away on vacation, John hosted a party. After midnight, he started texting former army buddies and calling friends. Laura Lathem says she reached out to John after seeing a troubling message.
"He had put up a Facebook status with the lyrics to a song called 'Tomorrow.' 'Tomorrow you’re going to let go of everything. Tomorrow you’ll move on with your life,'” Lathem said. “I sat up because that was kind of scary.”
About 4 a.m., the troubled young man was alone in his bedroom. At some point he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
John Chrzyanowski was only 22-years-old.
“I live the life of hell. I don’t have my son. Losing a child to a war, to suicide, to a car accident, to anything, it’s the hardest thing,” Linda Chrzanowski said.
John’s mother Linda thinks soldiers who leave active duty should be required to seek mental health counseling.
“I have a grandson who has to grow up without a father now. for the military to tell me it’s not mandatory for these gentleman, it’s really sad. It hurts so bad,” Linda Chrzanowski said.
Right now free counseling services are mandatory for active duty soldiers returning from a deployment. But non-active or reserve units are not required to seek treatment says Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
“The most important step for individuals is to understand that they need assistance and for them to make that step,” Ballesteros said. “That’s a critical commitment in the treatment process.”
So far, there’s no effort to make the treatment mandatory for those not in active duty. And even John’s own army buddies, guys like Jared Palmer, don’t agree on whether counseling should be made mandatory.
“You can’t be forced to go do anything. Nobody wants to be forced to do something. Nobody,” Palmer said. “They’re not going to talk, they’re just going to close. Just shut down.”
But that’s cold comfort for John’s mother Linda Chrzanowski.
“I wish he would have gotten the help. Not seeking help, I don’t understand why he didn’t do it or why he wouldn’t do it. I love him too much to be mad at him and I’m still proud of him,” she said. “I will always be proud of him.”
For more information on services for veterans please visit the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
(Song credit: "Tomorrow" by Chris Young)
Michael Puente is a reporter with WBEZ.
He can be reached at (312) 342-0056.
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