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September 23, 2014

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Soldier from LV dies of self-inflicted gunshot

During a visit to his family in Pahrump in July, Army Pfc. Travis Virgadamo of Las Vegas shared his recent combat experience in Iraq.

He told of being ordered into houses without knowing what was behind strangers' doors. He talked of walking along roadsides fearing the next step could trigger lethal explosives.

Virgadamo told them he had been so frightened, he had sought and received psychiatric counseling from the military in Iraq. He received additional counseling during a trip home in late July, his family said.

On Thursday crisply dressed soldiers appeared at his family's door in Pahrump to report that the 19-year-old had died that day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a forward post just outside of Baghdad.

The family says he was in no emotional shape to be assigned to combat.

The Army knew he was suicidal, the soldier's grandmother, Katie O'Brien, said Friday.

His aunt, Rebecca McHugh, complained: “They gave him Prozac and sent him back to Iraq.”

“They (military) knew his circumstances. They gave him counseling in Iraq before he came home and they gave him counseling in Georgia before he was sent back to Iraq. Now he's dead. What good is a dead soldier to them?”

McHugh said the family will call for a complete investigation.

That will happen as a matter of procedure, said Sgt. 1st Class Cameron Anderson, one of two soldiers who gave Virgadamo's mother the news on Thursday.

Virgadamo, serving in an infantry unit, drove trucks shuttling ammunition.

Virgadamo's death comes on the heels of a recent Pentagon report that at least 118 U.S. military personnel in Iraq have committed suicide from April 2003 to mid-August. That does not include unconfirmed reports of those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home.

Suicides have accounted for 3 percent of the overall Iraq war death toll, according to some Pentagon estimates.

In mid-2006 the Veterans Affairs Department reported more than 56,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had been diagnosed with mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and bipolar disorder.

In 2006 the Hartford Courant reported that the military is “recycling” troops who had sought mental health care, who had been diagnosed with mental diseases or who had indicated symptoms of mental duress and illness to their peers and chain of command.

The newspaper said some military personnel, after reporting mental duress, were pulled from duty, given 72 hours of rest and recreation, supplied with antidepressant medications, such as Prozac or Zoloft, and returned to their original duty stations.

The General Accounting Office reported that four out of five returning veterans who by the military's own standards are at risk for mental illnesses receive no treatment. The number of troops taking antidepressants or other psychotropic drugs is unknown. However, Army reports indicate that medical treatment in Iraq involving psychotropic drugs has increased steadily.

Virgadamo is believed to be the first Nevada soldier to die in Iraq of a self-inflicted wound.

His family said the soldiers who told them of his death did not use the word “suicide,” but rather said it was a “self-inflicted” gunshot wound.

When Virgadamo was on his 15-day leave in July, he told his grandmother that he had been seeing therapists in Baghdad and Kuwait.

“He did not want to go back. He had had a couple of close calls,” O'Brien said, including being involved in a vehicle rollover.

McHugh said she heard of similar close calls from her nephew.

Virgadamo was born Aug. 17, 1988, in Victorville, Calif., and moved to Las Vegas with his family at age 5. He was home-schooled and worked as a box boy at an Albertsons in southwest Las Vegas.

His family said Virgadamo wanted to be a soldier or a police officer since age 4. As a teenager he joined the Nellis Cadet Squadron.

In an Oct. 29, 2005, posting to MySpace.com, Virgadamo wrote with great enthusiasm of his pending enlistment: “In 16 days my paperwork gets sent in for transfer to senior membership and I become a living CAP Myth Hooah to going active Army.”

His family said he was very proud when he completed boot camp and thought he had a future in the military or as a forest ranger.

On his recent trip home, Virgadamo smiled when he saw a prayer poster for him at the Pahrump Taco Bell.

Virgadamo's other survivors include his father, Robert Virgadamo of the Philippines; his mother, Jackie Juliano of Pahrump; and two sisters, Katie Juliano of Pahrump and Nicole Virgadamo of the Philippines.

Virgadamo's father was told of his son's death by Philippine police officers. He is en route to Pahrump, his family said.

Services are pending.

On his MySpace profile, Virgadamo described himself as 5 feet 9 inches tall with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. He said his “most missed memory” was “Vegas.”

Under “How do you want to die?” Virgadamo replied, “In battle.”

Fighting back tears on the phone Friday, O'Brien said, “I just cannot believe it.

“I was like his mother,” O'Brien said. “I helped raise him. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. I talked to him at least twice a week.

“He was so young. He didn't want to be there. He was so scared,” O'Brien said. “Then they put him on Prozac.”

He had lost his spirit to be in battle, she said. When Virgadamo saw O'Brien earlier this summer, he told her, “Grandma, maybe I'll just go AWOL.”

O'Brien urged him to pray. “He went back praying and thinking it would be OK,” she said.

“For sure, it needs to be known he had problems,” O'Brien said. “They were going to discharge him. I really think they (military) are at fault to keep someone there.

“I think he just knew he was going to die,” O'Brien said.

His last screen name was “Lost Purple Heart,” O'Brien said.

Ed Koch can be reached at 259-4090 or at [email protected] Mary Manning can be reached at 259-4065 or at [email protected]

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