FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Aug. 14, 2015) — For one Army Reserve paratrooper, raising awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and suicides took to new heights recently at the Saint Mere Eglise drop zone, or DZ.
Sgt. Kristen Bell, a communication specialist from Oxnard, California, had a small payload tucked in her pockets of her Army combat uniform during an airborne jump that earned her the German jump wings.
Her journey to this moment started several months ago.
Bell, who is assigned to the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), based on Fort Bragg, was touched by a news report about a mother, who used social media to ask people to scatter her son’s ashes after he took his own life to raise awareness of PTSD and suicide.
During a lunch break while sitting in her car, Bell, a single mother of a 15-month old daughter, turned to Facebook to learn more about “Scattering CJ.”
CJ Twomey, a former member of the Air Force from Maine, committed suicide in April 2010. According to his mother, Hallie Twomey, he loved to travel, and she took to social media to help him take those adventures he talked about to his friends and families.
“I cried,” Bell said after reading her story. “As a mother, nothing more is passionate than the love of a child. I wanted to help her with her simple wish to take her son to places he never got to see. I’m a new mom and my heart goes out to other mothers.”
Bell said being a mom has helped her understand how Hallie and other mothers want to give everything for their son or daughter.
When Hallie first started the voyage more than 18 months ago, she didn’t understand how it would impact people. Instead, she hoped that those connected to this journey would walk away remembering her son.
“Beyond that, I didn’t have any real expectations,” she said.
Since then, she has come to learn how “Scattering CJ” has started conversations around depression, suicide, the military and organ donation and how it’s actually stopped a few people from choosing the same path as CJ.
“I now hope that it continues to spark conversations for all involved,” Hallie said. “I never intended CJ’s journey to be a platform for anything specific. It was merely born out of my guilt and my need to give him one last chance to see the world he didn’t get to see.”
As Bell read CJ’s story on her smartphone in the car that one afternoon, she connected with his story as her own journey and life choices turned a new chapter in her life a few months earlier.
After leaving active duty in October 2014, Bell said she didn’t know what she was going to do with her life except ensure her daughter, Willa, was safe and had a better life than her.
“When you are on active duty, it’s your life,” she said. “They told you what to wear, where to be and what time to be there. When I left, all of a sudden that purpose and drive was gone. I didn’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Being in the Army Reserve has helped restore Bell’s direction and purpose in life after nine years.
Like any caring mother, Hallie said she would give anything to have her son back.
“I hate that I had a reason to start ‘Scattering CJ’,” she said. “If his story helps save lives and opens doors to communication then his death will have meaning. CJ was so much more than just that one moment.”
Those special moments are bonds that connect parents to their children. Bell said her daughter is her world and her life struggles after leaving active duty were nothing compared to her love for her daughter.
“She is the reason I exist today,” she said. “Before the Army I was lost and made some bad choices.”
She said the military has empowered her with the Army values that transcend from military to the civilian life.
Before her jump out of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, Bell placed a small envelope containing Twomey’s photo, a small printed story and a sealed plastic bag with less than a teaspoon of his ashes, into her left cargo pocket.
“He’s been sitting in my shelf waiting for the right moment to take him on an adventure,” she said before a jumpmaster checked her equipment. “I’m glad I was able to take him on a jump to earn my German jump wings. I couldn’t wait to get out the door and share this with him.”
After the parachutes were loaded onto nearby trucks to be repacked and the German jump wings pinned on the paratroopers, Bell and several Soldiers gathered at the edge of the drop zone to remember CJ and others who suffered from mental illnesses.
“I have friends both in the Army and in personal life that have committed suicide,” she said.
Bell talked about one friend who came back from a deployment and killed himself shortly after returning home.
“He was alone and drinking,” she said. “You don’t know, because you’ll assume you will see the signs. We were close to him, and we didn’t see the signs of his situation.”
On the drop zone, Bell spent several minutes talking with Soldiers about his story and more importantly, suicide and PTSD.
“I wanted to be able to touch lives in a positive light,” she said. “Whether it’s one person or a thousand, it’s important to inform and educate people about the importance to helping others with mental illnesses.”
With the help of German Lt. Col. Andra Wiechart, a German army liaison staff officer with the 18th Airborne Corps, they opened the small packet of CJ’s ashes and dispersed them in a small corner of the DZ.
“He will always be a part of Saint Mere Eglise drop zone,” Wiechart said. “I can think of no better way to honor CJ and others who suffered from PTSD and have taken their own lives.”
Since the journey began, “Scattering CJ” has had hundreds of adventures around the globe and finally, his first Army airborne jump.
“I will never be able to say thanks enough to those who have offered to help me give CJ’s ashes so many amazing final resting places or to those who will offer support to others in need after reading how destructive suicide is for all involved,” Hallie said.
If one thing she hoped to pass on to others is simple message.
“Never, ever forget that someone, somewhere, loves you more than you know and would be destroyed if you were gone,” she said.
As Bell went back to work as a full-time Army Reserve Soldier, the story about CJ quickly spread through the hallways. It’s exactly what Hallie hoped for – touching lives through communication.
“Don’t be CJ. Live life because he couldn’t,” she said.