Staff Sgt. Erin Dries vividly remembers a dark time in her military career after two soldiers in her unit who had returned from a deployment to Afghanistan took their own lives.
Then a third soldier who was a family friend also took his life a short time later.
The loss of these three important people in her life sent her on a path of depression, heavy drinking and thoughts of ending her own life.
Dries, now in the Soldier Member Family Support Unit at the S.D. Army National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters at Camp Rapid in Rapid City, spoke to members of Custer Rotary Club at their noon meeting Monday, Nov. 6.
The Aberdeen native joined the S.D. Army National Guard in 2010 and was assigned to the 200th Engineer Co. in Pierre and later transfered to the company’s detachment in Mobridge where she spent the majority of her time.
Dries deployed with her unit to Afghanistan from 2011-12.
She knew when she signed up that the bridge building unit was already scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan.
There, she was part of a small group called to the northern part of the country in the middle of the night. While they were gone, a member of her unit in the rear area at Camp Leatherneck died in a non-combat related accident.
Spec. Dennis Jensen died Aug. 16, 2011, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
“When we returned to our unit after a month of being gone, it was like he was never there. His personal belongings had been shipped back to the States. That was hard on all of us,” Dries said.
When the unit members returned to the States and resumed their regular once-a-month weekend drills, Spec. Jake Longbrake took his life on May 19, 2014.
“Everybody loved him. He was very social. His loss made us realize we are not untouchable. I prayed something like this would never happen to a member of my squad,” Dries said.
He was on her mind when she wrote an essay for her unit’s non-commission officer (NCO) of the year competition, which she won.
“I was thinking about Jake as I wrote it because I was thinking about building connections and recognizing signs of a soldier in crisis and to do so, needing to have a connection with them,” Dries said.
“It is a challenge for an NCO in today’s National Guard to find soldier time with troops and to build connections with them in the midst of training schedules and seeing them only once a month,” she said.
Spec. Ben Kraft was a soldier from Sioux Falls who was a member of her fire team.
“During winter months we ask all our soldiers to check in with their leadership when they make it home so we know they are home safe. He called me that evening and was in a good mood,” Dries said.
The soldier took his life that evening, Dec. 8, 2014.
“I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to him after drill. I always say that to my soldiers after drill,” she said.
“I thought about all the times I was hard on him and now I was hard on myself. Counseling didn’t help. The counselors said it was not my fault,” Dries said.
Losing an old family friend to PTSD was the last straw for Dries.
Capt. Ben Larson, a West Point graduate who served five years on active duty, had continued his military career with the Minnesota Army National Guard.
He was a cavalry officer who lost several close friends in Iraq and suffered from severe survivor’s guilt, depression and PTSD, Dries said. He lost his battle with PTSD April 10, 2015.
Ben is the son of Paul and Karen Larson of Custer.
“We went to Roncalli High School in Aberdeen and his mom was my fifth grade teacher. I was on the track team with Ben and his brother and sister. I was younger than Ben and always admired and respected him,” she said.
The loss of these three important people in her life to PTSD in such a relatively short period of time sent her life into a tailspin.
“I started drinking and had suicidal thoughts myself,” she said.
Dries ultimately applied and was accepted to North Carolina’s Outward Bound program which is run by veterans for veterans and utilizes small group therapy sessions.
“We connected and shared our pain. Veterans just want to serve and give back. Severely disabled persons are integrated back into society,” she said.
Two years ago she became involved with Peace of Adventure which empowers military veterans to find healing through service to civilians with disabilities through outdoor recreation.
She initially joined as a board member. She is no longer on the board, but has served as a trip leader for five Peace Adventure trips. She has also served as the peer support specialist for the organization.
“I truly believe in the power of sharing our stories. When we share our stories we are allowing an opportunity for another to share theirs. This is an invitation for them to speak and to be able to share a part of their lives.
“This sharing can bridge gaps and make us realize we really are not that different and that we can be a shoulder for someone to lean on,” Dries said.
Her full-time job is with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Rapid City.