ROSENBERG - Ask Jenepher Castillo about her husband Donnie and her eyes light up.
"He's the guy all the guys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with," she says, describing him. "I was like, 'He's such a hot head and he's passionate. I loved it.'
The pair started dating in 2002, more than a decade after Donnie served in Operation Desert Storm. Once married, Jenepher started noticing Donnie was different.
"I stumbled across it on my own and realized: this is what he's dealing with," she says about learning about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
"He was just such a remarkable person and to watch him just be destroyed ... that's what happened. I watched it destroy him," Jenepher says.
She says Donnie started drinking, first as a way of coping, but she says it quickly became all-consuming.
"It was extremely hard. That word doesn't even describe it really," she says.
After two decades of fighting that emotional battle, Donnie lost, taking his own life in 2014. He didn't just leave Jenepher behind, but his three children too, including then 7-year-old Isabella.
YOU CAN HELP | Sign the Fairness for Veterans Petition
"She asked, 'Why? Why would he do that? Didn't he know that we need him?'" Jenepher recalls. "We all saw him suffering for so many years. When you see someone suffering that long, you almost can't hold it against them."
An estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Terry Jung, executive director of the Lone Survivor Foundation, says his organization tries to reach veterans before they get to that point. The group was started by Marcus Luttrell, whose harrowing story became a best-selling book and blockbuster film.
"We like to expose soldiers who haven't found solutions elsewhere to a whole variety of different modalities of therapy and wellness," Jung says.
The foundation does that through five-day retreats at a facility in Crystal Beach that focus on the vet, on the family and on the children.
"I used to joke and say that I think we've had soldiers from everywhere but Guam," Jung laughs. "But we've had someone from Guam now."
Veterans typically turn to Lone Survivor when they haven't found successful treatment through the VA.
"A lot of money is spent training soldier to go to war. Not a lot is spent helping them come back from it," Jung says.
Jenepher and Donnie knew that all too well.
"I had spoken with Donnie many times about our private insurance," she says. "'Let's just get private insurance and go get help.' He would say, 'No, dammit. I earned that care at the VA that I get. I earned it. My brothers are there. That's where I want to go and get the care that earned by my service.' But is it the quality that you earned? No, it's not the quality you earned."
Jenepher says never was that lack of quality more clear than in the month leading up to Donnie's death.
"On July 28, I sent a message in to his primary care and said, 'I need an appointment as soon as possible. He is really bad off right now. He's asking for help again. This is a small window of opportunity. I need him seen as possible.' They set his appointment for August 11."
That appointment was two weeks away. By then, the window had closed.
"Aug. 11 came around and he didn't go," says Jenepher.
A week later on Aug. 18, Donnie hung himself. That is why Jenepher still shares his story four years later.
"What I needed wasn't there for me," she says. "What a shame that is."
Jenepher says she wants to make sure Donnie's brothers and sisters in arms get the treatment they earn and the quality they deserve.
"It gives my pain a purpose," she says.
Jenepher encourages anyone interested in helping veterans to reach out to their congressmen about HR 3183 and HR 4640, the Veterans Healthcare Freedom Act and Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, respectively.
You can also click here to sign a petition calling on Congress to pass the Fairness to Veterans Act.
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