‘My husband came home a hero and died a villain’: A widow’s fight to save veterans battling PTSD

2021 statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimate roughly 17 veterans die by suicide each day in the United States.
For the widow of Staff Sergeant Alan Thomas, PTSD Awareness Day means another chance to share the story of what can happen when that help never comes.
Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 8:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - There are certain things Danica Thomas does to help her heal. Tying on tennis shoes and strapping on a weighted backpack is one of them.

Soldiers call it ruck march. Carrying a heavy load, mile after mile, refusing to quit. A task ingrained in the DNA of U.S. Army training.

Rucking has become a coping mechanism for Thomas.

“Every time I would get to a place where I didn’t know how to keep going,” Thomas said. “I put myself in mental spots where I would have no other choice than to get out of that mental spot.”

Thomas isn’t a soldier, but her husband was. Staff Sergeant Allen Thomas served in the U.S. Army for nearly a decade. He was an experienced combat infantryman and paratrooper assigned to Fort Bragg’s storied 82nd Airborne Division.

Related: Combat veteran offers solace in NC mountains for Green Berets

“Being a soldier was 100 percent of his identity. He wanted to serve forever,” she said.

But forever was cut short for Thomas who was deployed to Afghanistan in March of 2010 when a suicide bomber detonated in front of him, sending shrapnel and ball bearings through his chest.

Alan survived but his injuries were career-ending.

“I just knew I was never going to get him whole again,” Danica said.

For three years, Thomas fought through the effects of a Traumatic Brain Injury and severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Danica, who was then 24, did what she could to support him while caring for their little girls, ages 3 and six months old at the time.

“There’s no rule book in how to navigate that,” she said.

The end result of Thomas’ life is something that will forever haunt his widow.

“I just knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

In September of 2013, Thomas went into a neighbor’s house, down the street from their Fayetteville home. He shot and killed the two people living there and their dog before turning the gun on himself. He was believed to have been experiencing a flashback.

Danica heard it all.

“I believe he thought he was in Afghanistan. He was clearing a house,” she said.

Days prior, Thomas tried getting mental health treatment. Danica says he tried going to the local VA but was turned away because they didn’t have any available beds.

SSG Thomas was a decorated veteran with three combat tours - but that was not his final tagline.

“In the end, nobody is going to look at Alan Thomas and say it was his injuries that did that,” she said. “My husband came home a hero and died a villain.”

The heaviness of his final act still haunts her. But she said repeatedly her pain and trauma pales in comparison to what the victims’ families endured.

“There’s so much shame and embarrassment around that tagline. There’s guilt that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies,” she said

It took Danica years to talk about what her husband did that day. But it’s now become part of her purpose. She works tirelessly to decrease suicide numbers alongside the Charlotte-based non-profit, “The Independence Fund” and their “Operation Resiliency” program which offers retreats, mentorship and support for combat veterans fighting PTSD.

2021 statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimate roughly 17 veterans die by suicide each day in the United States.

VA data suggests between 11 and 20% of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, while that number doubles for those who fought in Vietnam.

Danica has shared Alan’s story with countless veterans who very much understand the darkness carried home from combat.

“I am able to talk about the worst day of my entire life to people who experienced really horrible days,” Danica said.

From day one of Army Basic Combat Training, soldiers learn their creed, a portion of which reads…”I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

Danica’s soldier can no longer live the Warrior Ethos. So, she is marching on in his place.

“I know that I am the person that he would have wanted me to be.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Veteran’s Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. Or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

For more information on “The Independence Fund,” visit the group’s website.

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