- Associated Press - Monday, November 3, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - She stood in the backyard of her neighbor’s house, unannounced and unexpected, with tears trickling down her cheeks.

Iraq wouldn’t leave Lt. Col. Tami Mielke alone, wouldn’t quit tormenting the National Guardsman with its memories of flag-draped caskets and mortuary stench and midnight specters pounding on her door.

Desperate to block it all out, she had started wandering a quarter-mile down the road from her home west of Sioux Falls, to an acreage nearby where her family had lived 20 years earlier.

There she could crouch unseen among the cottonwoods at the end of the long driveway and listen as the wind drove off the ghosts of Baghdad.

Or wander out back alone and stare blankly into the fire pit.

Friends and family sense she was searching for something among those familiar surroundings - for a happier Tami Mielke who had lived there long ago and was young and new to motherhood and confidently moving up the ranks of the Guard.

Back before the demons took over her life.

Before the betrayal of people she believed were more bent on discarding her 28-year military career than pulling her back from the abyss of her post-traumatic agony.

Mostly before the growing darkness devoured her spirit, claimed her self-worth and drove her to seek any kind of escape.

Whether it was a familiar acreage a quarter-mile down the road.

Or when that wasn’t enough, the blast of a gun.

___

They called her “Bulldog” at Sather Air Base on the sprawling complex of Baghdad International Airport, where Lt. Col. Tami Mielke served as Force Support Squadron commander from February to June of 2010, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1zeI0oP ) reported.

Her high-pressure mission there was to make sure the active-duty and reserve troops were taken care of in a war-time environment. A chair in the dining hall, an assigned place to lay your head at night, an operational Internet that actually allowed for Skyping with loved ones back home - Mielke oversaw every aspect of troop morale, welfare and recreation with a single-minded sense of duty.

She was perfect for the job, family members and Air Guard colleagues say.

Twenty-five-plus years in the National Guard had transformed her daughter from what Karen Kratochvil called “this little girlie girl … who couldn’t even figure out how to clean vegetables and push the peelings down the garbage disposal,” into a highly organized and regimented military leader.

No one out-prepared Lt. Col. Mielke, former Air Guard members say. One of the first commanders deployed to Iraq out of the Sioux Falls base, she memorized the biography of every important figure she might run into at Sather before she left. She knew the entire history and layout of the complex. She spent hours calling and talking to every member of her Sioux Falls team, going over so as not to miss a thing.

“Detail” could have been her middle name, Kratochvil said.

“Our family went on a vacation to Europe once, and Tami insisted that we all have an itinerary,” she recalled. “She put together these books with plastic sleeves and everything in them we were doing day by day. Hotel accommodations, trains, air travel. At one point, her brother shows up with a wrinkled piece of paper in his pocket, and she said, ‘Where is your book?’ She was good at making timeouts when people needed timeouts, too.”

Mielke instilled a similar sense of orderliness and responsibility at home as well.

The Mielke children - son Austin and daughter Ashley - were allowed to participate in only one activity at a time. No running frantically from sports event to music performance or whatever. Steve and Tami Mielke wouldn’t sacrifice their lives and time together as a family for that.

If you receive a gift, she taught her children, you don’t express your gratitude through an email or a text message. You send a personal note, she insisted, with more than just the words “thank you” written on them.

Beds got made. Rooms were picked up. Kratochvil laughs as she remembers how Austin and Ashley used to come to her house in southern Sioux Falls and spend at least some of their time straightening out her office.

“I know how that sounds,” she said. “But really, Tami did a wonderful job as a mother.”

It was the same in Iraq, where her dogged attention to responsibility and detail earned her a Meritorious Service Medal - awarded for outstanding performance to field grade officers like Tami Mielke.

“She was awesome,” whether she was lining up contractors to take over when the military left Baghdad or working through emails to take care of her airmen back home in Sioux Falls, said Becky Brennan, a retired chief master sergeant who worked immediately under Mielke.

“She was relentless, really, a bulldog,” Brennan said. “She was a fighter. That’s what made her a good commander.”

___

For all her training and preparation, Tami Mielke still couldn’t begin to fathom what awaited her in Baghdad.

Sirens screaming in the night, warning of potential incoming explosives. Drop and roll under your bunk. Press hard against the shower wall. Flatten yourself as much as you can in open spaces.

And pray the bombs don’t find you.

Anxiety constantly loomed near the surface. So did the worries that seemed to follow third country nationals onto the base, the Iraqis and others hired to provide services but who might just as easily slit your throat as do your laundry.

“You did worry about them,” said Pat Quinlivan, a master sergeant at the Air Guard who retired three years ago because of her own mental health issues. “They might be vetted on base, but they were always escorted. That’s my PTSD; I couldn’t trust them.”

There were at least two significant episodes Mielke eventually and grudgingly revealed in therapy that spoke to her torment.

One was a soldier who committed suicide, a young woman not much older than her own children.

Part of Mielke’s mission in Baghdad was mortuary affairs - everything from processing bodies to filling out necessary paperwork to those most difficult of exercises called patriot duty, a chillingly solemn protocol used for transporting the deceased back to their loved ones in the States.

She tried to downplay it, but Mielke oversaw 49 casualties. “And if her people had to process a body, she would not let them go without her,” Brennan said. “If her people had to do something that was unpleasant, she was going with them.”

Back home, memories of the young suicide victim would send Mielke spiraling into depression, especially during the holidays. But then she saw the soldier’s death as a parent would and not necessarily as a military commander, Brennan said.

“It was like, ‘I entrusted the Army to take care of my daughter. I sent her to Iraq, and then she commits suicide, and you send her home to me in a box, and she’s not ever really coming back to us again?’ ” Brennan said. “It was so senseless.”

The other nightmare Mielke couldn’t shake involved an incident in her quarters, what the military calls a compartmentalized housing unit, or CHU.

She hated guns and never wanted anything to do with them, her friends say. But protecting yourself at Sather mandated that you keep one close. Late one night, she found out why.

A knocking at the door startled Mielke from her sleep. Who is it, she called out? Nobody answered. Who is it, she yelled again? But all she heard was the rattling.

Trembling in the darkness, she reached for her gun. She flipped off the safety. She pointed it at the door. If need be, shaking and frightened, she was prepared to fire - and remained frozen in that position long after the knocking faded away.

And people question how it is that a National Guardsman like Tami Mielke, who deployed for only four months and saw no combat, could really come home sick with mental health issues, Quinlivan said.

“That,” she said, “is the problem with the Guard.”

___

Those who knew Tami Mielke well knew she had one overriding goal as a National Guardsman.

She wanted to be a colonel. Wanted passionately for that eagle insignia to be pinned on her left shoulder as confirmation of the hard work and dogged determination that had propelled her over 28 years up the ranks of the Air National Guard.

That’s why she went off to war college, friends and family say. And why she signed on for a tour in Iraq. She needed to check off those boxes if she wanted to become a colonel and, ultimately, a group commander on the base.

That goal didn’t change when she got back from Baghdad.

But Mielke had changed. And it didn’t take long for people to notice.

Days after her return, dusk was settling over a family Fourth of July celebration at her family’s acreage when father and son began setting off fireworks out in the yard. Mielke, sitting on the deck, bolted into the house.

Her mother found her crouching in a replay of the panic and anxiety she endured at Sather.

“I went in to see if she was OK, and she said ‘Yes, but I’m going to stay in here,’” Kratochvil recalled. “She came to the door a couple of times, but then went to the basement or wherever it was quietest in the house, where she didn’t have to hear it.”

Later that summer, after the post-deployment downtime had ended and she was back at work, the lieutenant colonel suddenly found herself in a daily routine that made little sense.

Her duties seemed pedestrian compared to the 18-hour-a-day, life-and-death nature of Baghdad, she told colleagues.

“She was like, ‘Chief, what should I be working on?’ And I would say, ‘Well, there is this and this,’” Brennan said. ” ‘None of this is important,’ she’d tell me. And in the whole realm of what she had had just done, maybe it wasn’t. I just know she had a very hard time focusing.”

At work and at home, as the weeks turned into months, Mielke couldn’t free herself from Iraq no matter how hard she tried - and she did try.

She kept a vast array of scented sprays and flameless candles close by as her barrier against the pungent memories of the mortuary.

There were sound boxes and cellphone downloads that conjured waves rolling into shore and babbling brooks and waterfalls - all of which helped overpower the echoes of a door rattling late at night.

And there was this scene that became all too common: Tami Mielke sitting alone at Veterans Memorial Park in north Sioux Falls, where the music of the wind through the elmwoods drowned out every reverberation of war looping again and again through her mind.

___

In the beginning, in those first months after her return, Mielke did what many returning service members with behavioral health issues do.

She denied her struggles, said her husband, Steve Mielke, himself a retired Air National Guardsman.

“You still want to come back. You still want to have a job. So you don’t open up about anything,” he said. “It’s ‘I’m fine. I’m fine,’ right on down the line. To say otherwise is a career-ender.”

The stigma of mental illness, and fear that it would cost her a chance to become a colonel, scared her as much the nightmares did. So Mielke powered through the anxiety and depression, and even made it her mission to help others who were struggling, those close to her say.

“When she came back, she was in contact with everybody on her deployed team, making sure they were OK,” her husband said. “She did her Facebook, did her phone calls. I know for a fact she saved one of the girls that had just got out of the military and had started using drugs.”

But by that first Christmas after Baghdad, it was Mielke who needed help. Her depression was deepening. The specter of that suicide victim back at Sather continued to haunt her as she dwelled on what the young woman’s parents must be going through that holiday season.

By then, Mielke had been participating in post-deployment assessments with the Veterans Administration, though her husband said she wasn’t all that keen about it.

In January 2011, a friend of the family’s suggested she consider a mental health program at Avera McKennan. She tried it and thought it did some good, though it came to an end all too quickly. So she turned to the VA Health Care Center here in Sioux Falls, a decision she would later say she regretted.

In an August 2013 letter to a military evaluation board, Mielke complained about what she called “serious problems with care of veterans that have PTSD” at the VA. Her doctor was a psychiatric intern from another country whose English-speaking skills proved to be a barrier, and whose answer for her problems was simply medicating her into a stupor, she wrote.

Shirley Redmond, public affairs officer for the Sioux Falls VA Health Care Center, declined to discuss Mielke’s case, but insisted “we do have a very talented and seasoned team of professionals here who are quite adept at treating PTSD.”

Tami Mielke didn’t think so. But by the summer of 2011, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. The Missouri River was flooding at record stages. The National Guard was called in to help, and her days were filled with enough busy work to push Iraq out of her mind.

She seemed to be getting better - at least for a while.

___

Despite any depression and anxiety that were troubling her, Tami Mielke’s dreams seemed to be coming true late in 2011.

Work on the flooding had wound down. In October, she learned she was moving up to lead the Mission Support Group at the start of the coming year, a first for a woman in the history of the South Dakota Air National Guard.

On Jan. 7, 2012, the head of the Guard in the state, Maj. Gen. Tim Reisch, approved Tami’s promotion to colonel. “Everything I knew about Tami was that she was very good, had a lot of potential,” he said. “We had big hopes for her.”

The Secretary of Defense signed off on the promotion that April. The federal recognition from the U.S. Senate - the last step in the promotion process - would come by the end of May.

Even before that final Congressional approval, Mielke had earned the right to be called Colonel (Select).

Of course a bigger title means greater expectations. For Mielke, in the throes of what would be diagnosed as PTSD, those pressures came to bear quickly.

At the change of command ceremony on Jan. 1, 2012, the new Mission Support Group leader rambled in her comments, repeating herself, stumbling over her words.

“It was so out of character,” her mother said. “I had never heard Tami like that before. It was very uncomfortable.”

Brennan, sitting in the audience, thought to herself: “I need to go up and get her. But I didn’t. Nobody did.”

No one really knew what to do, Brennan said. Not then, it seemed, nor in the months to follow.

___

A Mission Support Group commander has a lot of responsibilities.

Mielke directed and managed base support functions - 330 airmen working in civil engineering, security forces, logistics readiness, communications and force support. In addition she had to organize the air show, keep up with the annual Family Fun Day and try to stay ahead of all the minutiae that goes into supporting the guardsmen.

It exacted a toll on a commander still struggling with her own mental and emotional wounds.

Mielke’s salve for the pain at work was a headset and music. The soothing melodies released chemicals in her brain that, for a time at least, distracted the constant noise from Iraq. But some at the base simply viewed it as more erratic and inappropriate behavior, her husband said.

“They saw the headset. They told her it was unprofessional,” he said. “‘Commanders don’t do this.’ “

Colleagues describe how Mielke also seemed to lose her inhibitors. “What we all have so we don’t say inappropriate things,” Brennan said, “Tami lost that part of her brain.”

“She was all over the place,” Quinlivan said.

“Right,” Brennan continued. “She was really struggling. In time, she said some things that were very inappropriate.”

His wife wasn’t oblivious to her behavior, Steve Mielke said. In April 2012, she entered a 12-week program at the Vet Center in Sioux Falls called “cognitive processing therapy.” Working with counselors, she began peeling back the layers of hurt and torment.

One thing her therapist required of her was to write about her experiences in Baghdad and then be prepared to discuss them. Prying those memories loose was so excruciating for her that she typically waited until the last minute each week, Brennan and Quinlivan said, then would retreat to Veterans Memorial Park where she bawled as she tried to put the pain on paper.

“It was brutal. It really tore her up,” Steve Mielke said. “But each time afterward, it got better and better.”

He could see that. What torments him to this day is his belief that his wife’s superiors at the air base seemed to have no clue.

“After the deal on Jan. 1 where she rambles a bit, then she’s under the microscope from then on,” Steve Mielke said. “I referred to it … as an animal in the wild. Once they smell blood, you’re removed. Once they see something where they thought, ‘Oh, that’s a little shaky, you might not be able to do anything for us,’ then they start running from her.”

Not everybody ran, Brennan and Quinlivan insisted. There were pockets of people who tried to and did help Mielke out at the base. But there were many more, they agreed, who simply didn’t know how to help.

“I think people don’t realize …,” Brennan began, then stopped as she choked back tears. “People don’t know how to deal with PTSD. Her co-workers and her peers, whatever, did not know how to deal with her. They just said, ‘How do we get her back to the way she was? Will you go and talk to her and tell her she needs to snap out of it?’

“They just didn’t know what to do. They wanted her to conform to all their rules, but she couldn’t. So they needed to figure out a way to work with her, and they couldn’t do that.”

___

Soon after Tami Mielke assumed her group command, “events occurred that resulted in a determination by officials at Offutt Air Force Base that further actions were warranted,” Col. Russ Walz, commander of the 114th Fighter Wing of the South Dakota Air National Guard, said in a written statement.

He wouldn’t explain what those events were. Nor did he admit that it was his decision in the first place to send Mielke to Offutt, a move her husband believes almost assuredly ended her career advancement before she had a chance to recover from her PTSD.

A military medical expert at Offutt assessed Tami Mielke’s mental health status to determine whether she could still perform her military duties anywhere in the world, or if she needed further evaluation in front of what is called a medical evaluation board.

On May 24, the ruling came back. She was placed on “medical profile” - an indication that the medical official believed she could not do her job. Ironically, that would be the same day the U.S. Senate determined she could be promoted to colonel.

Lt. Col. Tami Mielke’s dream had come true - except that the “medical profile” designation overrode any Senate decision and brought the promotion to a halt.

That ruling absolutely devastated his wife, Steve Mielke said. He said Walz had to have known the promotion was coming and also knew that an adverse ruling at Offutt would derail his wife’s chances of ever seeing that promotion.

Walz disagreed, saying his promotion of Tami Mielke to group commander resulted in her receiving a certificate of eligibility for promotion to colonel on May 31, 2012. That means she had a 24-month window to be promoted, he said.

Steve Mielke doesn’t believe that. There were four Air Guard members up for promotion at that time, including his wife, he said. The other three were all promoted at that time, Mielke said. The right thing for Walz to have done was to let his wife’s promotion go through “that she had already earned” before sending her off to Offutt, Steve Mielke said.

“Let her go through the cognitive processing therapy at the Vet Center. See how things happen. And if not, by all means get the medical evaluation board involved and take it from there,” he said. “But no. They didn’t even give her a chance.”

Walz said Lt. Col. Tami Mielke tried to submit her resignation on May 16, 2012, and he wouldn’t accept it. He didn’t believe it was in her best interest or that of the Air Guard.

He wanted her to succeed, Walz wrote in his statement. He also believed he had few options, and that any actions taken with Tami Mielke after she went on medical profile “were controlled by Air Force regulations.”

“While I want to see all our members excel and reach their highest potential within our organization, their ability to be selected and serve effectively in these positions of immense command responsibility cannot be overlooked,” Walz said. “I must always consider the welfare and needs of the individual as well as the organization they serve.”

___

She did not give up easily. Tami Mielke after all was a bulldog.

Her neighbors, Roger and Nancy Schumacher, quickly got a sense of that after they finally went out to inquire of the woman who started showing up unannounced in their yard.

They had known Tami Mielke somewhat, known that she lived just up the road and that her son, Austin, went to Roosevelt High School because Roger Schumacher, a Vietnam veteran, had talked in Austin’s class.

But in the months to follow, they got the full complement of their neighbor - from the high energy and determination to the woman who was at times flighty but always particularly thoughtful.

It was Tami Mielke who led Roger Schumacher to the Vet Center, believing counseling might help him with his own unresolved issues from Vietnam. She assumed a quasi-counselor role herself with the Schumachers, showing up unexpectedly with goodies whenever she thought they might need cheering up.

“Tami was always coming by, but she never stayed long,” Roger Schumacher, 64, recalled. “She’d pull in, get out of her car, rush up here, tell me what was going on. … ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing this and I’m doing that. I’m going to the Pentagon. I’m going to meet these girls, and here, have a cupcake and, hey, have a good day,’ and then back in her car and away she went.”

It was an energized side of their daughter that the Kratochvils saw as well, though at times in a more troubling way.

“She wouldn’t remember things,” Karen Kratochvil said. “I mean, it was like she was missing that calendar she always had. And then she would flit around. Her last summer, it would be, come in real loud and just walk in, and my husband would say, ‘Tamara, calm down, calm down, calm down.’ It was just like she was wired … so tightly wound or whatever.”

Mielke was fighting the Offutt decision and battling the military with a pool table in the basement piled high with reports and documentation she was sure would prove her case.

She continued to seek help for her illness at the Vet Center, too, and through a provider at Sanford Health as well.

And all the while, she was watching others being promoted at the air base, her husband said, enduring their pinning ceremonies while hers remained on hold.

“With all this, she is still trying to convince the medical evaluation board that she is fit, ready to go,” Steve Mielke said. “So she’s hiding everything because that will get her back to worldwide deployable status and get promoted. She’s just fighting as hard as she can, to no avail because … it didn’t happen.”

With all the pressure bearing down on her, Tami Mielke made what her husband called “a couple of unprofessional comments, derogatory, inappropriate” to military lawyers involved with prosecuting her medical status in that fall of 2012.

Walz, the wing commander, quickly pulled her out of her Mission Support Group command, took it away from her and “sent her over to headquarters to wait out her time,” Steve Mielke said.

It was, he said, the final blow.

Assigned to the base headquarters in Sioux Falls, she spent the last year of her career “not really doing anything,” she told her mother.

“She was like a colony of lepers out there” Steve Mielke said. “She has some really good friends who stuck with her, but for the most part, everyone abandoned her. She had nothing left.”

___

In the end, Tami Mielke could not find her way out of the darkness.

She withdrew from family, from friends, from virtually everyone.

She quit answering her cellphone, wouldn’t return text messages, insisted she wouldn’t be able to make lunch or coffee.

“She went off the grid. She went off Facebook,” Brennan, her chief master sergeant, said. “If I did get a hold of her, it was always, ‘Had a tough day. I’ll call you tomorrow.’ And then tomorrow never came.”

When their neighbor abruptly stopped coming by, the Schumachers suspected something was up. But the idea she might try to hurt herself? No way, Roger Schumacher said. He and Tami Mielke had spent a lot of time talking about the young woman in Baghdad who had killed herself. She had stressed again and again how wrong that was, how it wasn’t the answer.

“All the time, that was a mainstay point in Tami’s personality,” Schumacher said. “She couldn’t see how that was the way to solve a problem. She verbalized the fact that it was not something that was for Tami.”

On June 24 this summer, Steve Mielke awoke to find his wife downstairs on the computer. It was earlier than he was used to seeing her up, but he thought little of it, kissed her on her head, told her he was going out to a few appointments and would be back in a little while.

Their son, Austin, had already left for work. Daughter Ashley was still sleeping. It was about 8:15 in the morning.

Mielke took his wife’s car to his appointments because he wanted to fill it with gas for her. When he returned a few hours later, the family’s long-haired Chihuahua, Buster, was waiting at the door. That’s odd, Mielke thought at the time. Buster never leaves his wife’s side.

He changed clothes. Then he walked outside, where he found Ashley just finishing up in the garden.

“Where’s your mother?” he asked.

“I thought she went with you,” Ashley replied.

Thinking maybe she had gone to town, he went inside to look for the keys to his truck parked in the detached garage - the same truck in which he had left his gun after work over the weekend.

The keys were gone, so he walked out to the garage.

And found Tami.

Mielke doesn’t believe his wife planned to kill herself that day. Her car was gone, she went to see where his truck was, she knew he sometimes left his gun in it and “it was the perfect storm,” he said.

Despite what his neighbor had told him earlier, Roger Schumacher wasn’t entirely surprised as he stood in his yard and watched the ambulance and the emergency vehicles and the chaos at the Mielkes up the road.

Though It still makes no sense.

“Anything this woman did, she devoted herself to it,” Schumacher said. “And to lose her life in the Guard as she did just said to her, ‘Tami, you’re no good anymore.

“I told Steve, ‘It didn’t have anything to do with you.’ It had to do with Tami. Tami has to have felt, ‘I’m not good enough anymore. I’m worthless. So they’re better off without me, no matter what pain I cause.’ “

___

This past Sept. 10, the first day of a two-day symposium examining services available to military members, Maj. Gen. Reisch stood on a stage at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls and said this.

“When we learn of those” who are risk to commit suicide, he said, “we do very well” at effectively treating them with the institutional knowledge, the care knowledge that the Guard has.

No one disputed him.

Yet earlier this summer, in response to Tami Mielke’s death, Gov. Dennis Daugaard told Reisch that he wanted him to assess the unit climate at the 114th Fighter Wing as it pertains to the treatment of members with deployment-related behavioral health diagnoses. He wanted to know how those diagnoses are affecting guardsmen’s careers.

Mostly, he wanted to make sure everything was being done to stop Guard members like Tami Mielke from taking their own lives.

The assessment was done; the results, Reisch said, confirmed to him what he said at the pavilion, that the National Guard is doing a good job.

But friends, family and former colleagues of Tami Mielke say her death tells them everything they need to know about the state of military mental health care in South Dakota.

“They didn’t know what to do, and she burned a lot of bridges,” Quinlivan said. “She did not keep anything secret, and they fought back.”

They couldn’t see the woman Roger and Nancy Schumacher saw, sitting in the trees, staring into an empty fire pit, looking for any escape.

Out of sight and out of mind can’t be an excuse anymore, Roger Schumacher said. And Brennan, Quinlivan, Karen Kratochvil and Steve Mielke agree.

“Whatever did this to Tami, if it’s out there at the Guard, God help us,” Schumacher said. “It’s not Tami’s fault that she’s gone, OK? It’s not her fault. She needed support, and she didn’t get it. We can change that. For everyone’s sake, we need to change that.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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