NATICK, Mass. (Oct. 8, 2015) — A retired Army major, who had devoted the final months of his life to raise awareness of veteran suicides, died of colon cancer after a long, courageous fight.
Retired Maj. Justin Fitch, 33, the former Headquarters Research and Development Detachment, or HRDD, commander at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, died in his hometown of Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, Oct. 3.
Fitch used his own story to shed light on veteran suicides. While serving in Iraq in 2007, Fitch had contemplated taking his own life. He got to the point, where he was sitting in his shipping-container sleeping quarters with the barrel of his M-4 rifle in his mouth.
“It’s OK to seek help,” Fitch said later. “You can get help. Look at me.”
His victory over suicide and subsequent three-plus-year cancer fight became a compelling human interest story that attracted national media attention, giving a platform from which he pointed out that 22 veteran suicides were occurring daily. He often noted that some 8,000 veterans – more than all those service members who had died in the entire Global War on Terrorism – had killed themselves each year.
“We’re raising awareness, and that’s very important,” Fitch said last April. “Part of fixing a problem is knowing that a problem exists. [Suicide is] a very taboo topic with a lot of stigma. It’s just not talked about.”
Fitch endured dozens of chemotherapy treatments and numerous surgeries while continuing his duties as HRDD commander at Natick, serving as a powerful example for his Soldiers. In his off hours, Fitch participated in long ruck marches as the leader of “Team Minuteman,” part of the “Carry the Fallen” organization that works to raise awareness of veteran suicides.
Though doctors once gave him just months to live, Fitch shrugged off their estimates to continue what he always called his “final mission,” reducing the number of daily veteran suicides to zero. He would go to any lengths to tell that story – even if it meant allowing a TV crew in to shoot video while he received chemotherapy.
More than once during a media interview, Fitch had to apologize, stop suddenly, and allow a wave of pain to wash over him. He would then collect himself and continue to answer more questions.
Because his own story of near-suicide was playing out so publicly, Fitch was often approached by other veterans who were at risk. He gave out his cell phone number freely, and he answered that phone whenever it rang – day or night.
“If all we do is just save one life, one that wouldn’t have been saved otherwise,” Fitch often said, “I say that’s mission success.”
Soldiers and civilians at Natick Soldier Systems Center, or NSSC, Fitch’s last duty station before his medical retirement in December 2014, paused for a moment of silence, Oct. 5, at the flagpole in front of the NSSC headquarters building. Many also took time to share their favorite memories of him.
“He was a commander who took care of his Soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. William Cole, NSSC senior commander. “He took the time to get to know them, learn about them and share with them. He gave them wise counsel on how to succeed in the Army and also in life.
“If anyone represented what Ready and Resilient means … it was Justin Fitch. Our Army is better because Maj. Fitch served. The Natick Soldier Systems Center is better because Maj. Fitch touched so many here.”
Kristen Heavens said it was difficult for her to find enough words to describe Fitch.
“He woke up every morning knowing that he would be in pain, yet he made the decision to not only fight it head on, but to have a positive outlook,” Heavens said. “This man embodied each of the Army values deeply, and I’m honored to have known him.”
His former first sergeant, Brian Gemmill, recalled how Fitch always went the extra mile to achieve what others thought couldn’t be done.
“His mental resiliency far outmatched his physical state, and he never let his cancer slow him down,” Gemmill said. “I think that everyone who knew him feels the same way. Justin Fitch lived his life and died trying to solve complex problems, never giving in to common excuses and absolutely never taking no for an answer.”
Staff Sgt. Shaun Morand spoke of Fitch’s leadership qualities, which he witnessed at Natick.
“He didn’t stop leading Soldiers when their military time was done, or even when his was,” Morand said. “He just took care of them with every bit of strength he could muster and until his final breath. I’m proud to have known him, and I hope to carry on his mission and make him proud.
“His legacy carries on in the lives he saved and the lives he changed.”
By Bob Reinert/USAG Natick Public Affairs