- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - Jacob Hutchinson wore the physical wounds of war. Jagged scars from an improvised explosive device that nearly tore off his lower legs. Precision-cut lines from more than 20 surgeries to repair the damage.

But it was the emotional toll from serving as a combat medic in Afghanistan that likely caused the 24-year-old National Guard veteran and Purple Heart recipient to kill himself on April 22 inside the Bloomington house a military organization had donated to him.

“Those wounds that he had were easy to see on the outside,” Sela Gonlubol told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1fUTLJa ). “But his personality was larger than life, and that made the wounds on the inside harder to see.”

Her last contact with Hutchinson was a text message asking if he still planned to visit her on Mother’s Day. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

Hutchinson graduated early from high school, enrolled in community college classes in Cedar Rapids, then joined the National Guard in 2008. He was the first in his family to enter military service. His mother said he found his place. “He had a purpose, a passion in his life,” she said.

When members of his National Guard unit were scheduled for a stint in Afghanistan in 2010, Hutchinson was sent to San Antonio for medical training before being deployed. Military photographs taken at Fort Irwin near Barstow, California, in September 2010 show Hutchinson on his cot reading a book and also sitting on the floor with another soldier, looking at pictures on a cellphone as they awaited departure.

On May 21, 2011, the National Guard released another photo of Hutchinson. He was in a hospital bed in Germany, just three days after the explosion, receiving the Purple Heart medal that’s awarded on behalf of the president of the United States to soldiers injured or killed in the line of duty.

Four soldiers from the Iowa-based National Guard unit were injured when the 120-pound bomb blew up. Hutchinson had been scheduled to return home just nine days later.

Gonlubol told a reporter from the Cedar Rapids Gazette right after the accident that her son had two broken legs and a broken arm, but that he was hopeful and optimistic. “His legs will heal. He’s an athlete, and he will be able to work with folks and have a good outcome. I’m very convinced of that.”

Hutchinson’s injuries turned out to be more serious than first reported. He ended up spending 20 months at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility near the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, where he had trained as a medic the year before.

During his recovery, Hutchinson thought about his future. He married his girlfriend, Alexandria Young. He had planned on a career as a nurse, but wasn’t sure his legs could endure long days of nursing school clinical rotations. And he was pretty sure he would not be running a marathon as he had been training for before the war intervened.

He talked a lot about his service as a medic, proud he was able to help people, including children, in village clinics. “He would not talk about the war-related things he saw, focusing more on the brotherhood of the guys serving together,” Gonlubol said. “His pictures from Afghanistan are with him and children he met. He was really connected to the kids he treated in the villages. Some of them had burns, and he treated them on a regular basis.”

Hutchinson was upset by the number of abused children he saw. “He and I had a conversation about the stress families undergo living in the middle of a war, how hard it would be on them,” Gonlubol said.

It was during his recovery in Texas that Hutchinson got two dogs, a Great Dane called Nito and a liver-spotted Dalmatian named Brownie. They came with him when he moved to Bloomington. His mother recalled a frantic call when Brownie escaped from the fenced yard and Hutchinson spent an afternoon trying to find the dog, who did return. “He called me in a panic and said, ‘Mom, that dog got me through the hardest times.’ And I knew what he meant. He loved those dogs. They were family to him.”

Gonlubol said her son changed in Afghanistan, something she had been warned about during National Guard parent meetings. “He had a shorter fuse, got angry more quickly, since coming back from Afghanistan,” she said.

His wife moved back to Iowa, and the couple got a divorce in October 2013. Hutchinson lived on the disability compensation he received from the military, and was enrolling in EMT classes, his mother said. He worked out at Cardinal Fitness gym and spent time training his dogs. He bought a flashy lime-green Jeep with dark tinted windows and a Purple Heart license plate.

He was anticipating the amputation of his lower right leg because of sharp pain with every step. His mother said he was frustrated by the amount of time it was taking to arrange the surgery and prosthetic.

“Mostly, he was this happy-go-lucky person, but over recent weeks, he was angry over things,” Gonlubol said. “Looking back, he was more up and down in his moods than was typical. Now, I have a bigger-picture view of things.” She said her son had an appointment with a counselor this month.

Hutchinson was released from the Iowa National Guard on Nov. 27, 2012. The next day, he was in Bloomington to receive a gift: a house on the corner of Feerwood Court and Rosewood Drive in Northwood Estates. It was given to Hutchinson and his then-wife mortgage-free through the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Banks turn foreclosed and unsold homes over to the organization, which fixes the houses up and donates them to injured veterans.

The program has placed 516 veterans in homes spread across 42 states; there are 17 houses in Indiana, 10 with current residents.

The organization was saddened by what happened to Hutchinson, who received the 325th house. “This has not happened before,” spokeswoman Casey Kinser said.

The day Hutchinson took possession of his home, he was welcomed by Chase bank workers whose employer had donated the house. They gave Hutchinson a $500 gift card from donations and a basket with information pamphlets about the area. A neighborhood association member was there to greet him.

“It’s such an incredible gift, on so many levels,” he said, standing in the kitchen of his new home. “It’s a fresh start, a place to start over and to have something of our own.” His mother and sister had planned to visit Bloomington this summer to see the house; they had sent furnishings and a set of family dishes. “He told me that we would love the town,” Gonlubol said. “He said he wanted the house to be in perfect shape when we came.”

The military support group erected a tall flagpole in the front yard before he moved in, and raised an American flag the day he arrived.

A week after his death, about 30 of Hutchinson’s Northwood Estates neighbors gathered in the man’s front yard as a storm rolled in near sunset. A retired minister from down the street said a prayer and read Psalm 23. Then, they raised the flag, which had been flying at half-staff.

A Pentagon report released in April showed a 15 percent decline in suicides by active-duty soldiers. But it also indicated that suicides among reservists and National Guard members increased 8 percent, from 140 in 2012 to 152 in 2013. And the most recent report on veteran suicides from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed an increase from 18 per day in 2007 to 22 each day in 2010.

Gonlubol has learned it’s vital to be aware of the mental health of returning soldiers and to recognize signs of distress. “Ask more questions,” she said. “Don’t settle for, ‘Everything is fine,’ when you suspect it is not.” She said her son was anxious, unsettled in rooms with lots of windows and would not sit near a door. She was worried, but knew he had seen a lot of death and suffering in Afghanistan and was trying to deal with it. “You never think this could happen,” she said.

Hutchinson’s sister, Maya, was 12 when her brother was injured. She started wearing Vibram five-toed shoes in his honor because he wore them when he ran and had planned to have them on his feet for his first marathon.

“She wore them every day, for nine months, until he walked again,” their mother said. “When the company heard about it, they sent her five pairs.”

She wore her best pair to her brother’s April 26 funeral at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids.

___

Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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