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SACKETS HARBOR — After realizing her husband’s gun was missing and all but one room in the house was empty, Diana M. Meredith almost knew what she was about to walk into.
She sensed something may be wrong, even if her husband was called the soldier who never stopped smiling, the veteran who talked his battle buddies out of harming themselves, the kid who made teachers laugh when they shouldn’t and the man who never gave up in being her once-in-a-lifetime love.
Even so, Diana M. Meredith worried what she was about to find in that last room.
Garrett E. Meredith, a 2014 graduate of Sackets Harbor Central School, came home after his second tour in Afghanistan with a combat infantryman badge. His post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis was almost sealed by that badge, since they are only given to soldiers who fought in active ground combat while deployed.
Roughly three years after getting out of the Army, despite seeking treatment and constantly checking in on those he served with, Mr. Meredith died by suicide from a gunshot wound in his home fewer than two weeks ago. He was 25.
In the days after he died, a support system of veterans surrounded his wife, also a graduate of Sackets Harbor. They cried around her as she stood measured, at times finding humor to put them at ease. She stood there knowing what she had to do.
June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, which was enacted to raise awareness about issues and stigma related to PTSD and to help ensure that those suffering receive proper treatment. In 2018, roughly 6,435 U.S. veterans died by suicide, 172 being from New York state. At least 298,000 soldiers who have deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001 were diagnosed with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Among Vietnam War veterans, an estimated 30%, or roughly 405,000 men and women, screened positive for PTSD.
Mrs. Meredith wanted to do more than watch her husband be added to those statistics. Now she’s angry and wants to speak about what she saw in the months and days leading up to his death.
“My husband saved so many pistols out of other guys’ mouths in his own life,” Mrs. Meredith said. “I want to make him proud and be strong for him. He was the biggest advocate against this.”
THE MORNING SHE SEARCHED THE HOUSE
The night of Sunday, May 23, Mrs. Meredith’s husband kissed her good night, scratching her back in bed, and then went to stay up for a while as she fell asleep. This was normal. He used the quiet of night to watch TV or play video games.
The next morning, a week before Memorial Day, she woke up, running late. As she made her way through their home, she noticed that her husband’s work phone was still there, then that his car remained in the driveway.
She looked through the bedrooms and the basement until she had searched every room but the garage. Then she saw his empty gun holster. He was an armed security supervisor at the time.
“That’s when I almost knew what I was walking into,” she said. “My husband had better gun safety than that.”
She opened the garage door that morning and found her husband. He had shot himself. Less than two hours before, he was checking in on another soldier. They spoke over the phone about linking up with another friend and getting drinks together.
“I don’t believe it was my husband who did that to himself that night,” she said.
HER INITIAL EFFORTS
Mrs. Meredith said she is already working with elected officials to make treatment more accessible for veterans. At one point, she almost sought a career at the VA to address this issue. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mrs. Meredith said the VA basically dropped her husband. She said her husband tried calling and they made little contact. The chaplain service stopped, as well as the support group. He felt forgotten in a time that he was also watching fellow soldiers he had just deployed with die by suicide before him.
“They just didn’t give him anything,” Mrs. Meredith said. “They need to be held accountable.”
She isn’t blaming the VA for his death. It’s a governmental organization that is focused on providing healthcare and treatment to veterans for a number of different things, from back pain and mental health concerns to administering vaccinations. It’s just not as much of a community as some might want.
Mr. Meredith is an example of the last man who people thought would die by suicide, and his wife felt that, too. But she also saw the signs and did everything she could to try to get him help. He did, too, but for a split-second of darkness that brought him into that garage.
Mr. Meredith wasn’t always planning to go into the Army, despite his father serving four tours. He went to college for political science, perhaps ready for something else, but the drive to make his dad and family proud outweighed everything else. He had a passion to serve his country, and his wife is saying he deserved better.
WHAT HIS PTSD LOOKED LIKE
The unknown in a disorder like PTSD has struck Mrs. Meredith the most. There’s a raw balance of not seeing it coming, especially to a soldier like Mr. Meredith, and still knowing that he did suffer. Many soldiers at home feel progress and then enter a sudden blackout portrayed as demonic and anti-self, according to roughly a half-dozen soldiers interviewed.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Meredith didn’t show signs of PTSD. Many symptoms can include substance abuse, excess spending, nightmares, flashbacks, social withdrawal and lack of sleep and hygiene. Mrs. Meredith saw many of these in Mr. Meredith in the months before his death. She would never dismiss how amazing she said he was as a husband, but there were hard nights. She remembers one in 2019 that caused her to sit him down and ask if he needed help. Like with anything — whether it was when she turned his video game off, or when a teacher told him to stop goofing off — Mr. Meredith directed his attention at what needed to be done. He went to the VA the next day, further demonstrating he did ask for help when he needed it.
Mr. Meredith stopped drinking for six months, he was seeing a chaplain, taking medication and attending a veterans’ support group. He was an advocate for Til Valhalla Project, which raises money to prevent suicides in veterans. He was wearing a ‘22 A Day’ bracelet the day he died, which represents the number of veteran suicides daily.
And he continued to check in on his brothers in arms every Friday, even if just to call and chit chat.
WHAT SOLDIERS THOUGHT OF HIM
One of those soldiers Mr. Meredith was always checking in on was Damian Nicholson, the other soldier he was making plans to meet with in the hours before his death. Mr. Nicholson has been out of the Army for three years now and still catches up with Mr. Meredith frequently. The last time they spoke, Mr. Nicholson was talking to him about Mr. Meredith coming to work for him on his real estate team.
“He talked me out of eating a bullet once,” Mr. Nicholson said. “So this one doesn’t make sense to me, because he was literally just making plans for the summer. This one caught us all off guard.”
When Mr. Meredith got to his unit, Mr. Nicholson was a team leader and basically a supervisor. Mr. Nicholson said he remembers “smoking” him, which is their term for making Mr. Meredith do just about every physical activity besides mopping the sun off the pavement.
“You still could never get a smile off that kid’s face,” he said.
Mr. Nicholson deployed with Mr. Meredith in his first deployment in 2016.
“I could never catch him doing anything wrong,” Mr. Nicholson said. “You know those people who just have a vibrant aura? They just smile and you just know they got your back. That was Meredith. He was a phenomenal soldier and I trusted him with my life.”
Mr. Nicholson saw how Mr. and Mrs. Meredith’s relationship has been described by many. They were best friends and could be just as quick to pick on each other as they were to love each other deeply.
“It’s not like I’m trying to make them look good,” he said. “They were always smiling, always laughing and attached at the hip. And if they weren’t together, it was Meredith and Foster.”
Foster is Jonathan Foster. He and Mr. Meredith became close after they went through boot camp together, then got stationed at the same post in Colorado, placed in the same company and squad and toured together in both deployments.
“I don’t know if it was luck,” Mr. Foster said, “but it was more chance that we were able to be best friends.”
The pairing used to sit in overwatch towers for 12-hour shifts. They sat up there and played a game they called Tier Two College Word Challenge, which was essentially going through the alphabet and thinking of words related to school for each letter.
“Everyone would say Meredith is the smart one and Foster is the dumb one,” he said, “but when we got to the tours, I would beat him and that was kind of our secret.”
Mr. Foster still stressed Mr. Meredith’s intelligence. He was someone who could dovetail from a quick comeback to a serious conversation. After they both got out of the Army, Mr. Foster and Mr. Meredith spoke weekly if not more. He remembers one night in particular they stayed up talking over the phone about how treatment needs to be more structured and how the VA should develop its own program similar to “22 A Day.”
Mr. Foster said he, too, doesn’t think his friend’s death was planned. He had just spoke with him the day before.
“I think something might have triggered him and put him in that dark place,” Mr. Foster said. “We’re all beating each other up over why he didn’t reach out to us, but it’s so hard to reach out when you’re in that dark place.”
When Mr. Meredith died, Mr. Foster lost his job after he traveled to be with Mrs. Meredith. The trio had once even lived together in Colorado.
“I knew where I had to be,” Mr. Foster said. “Meredith had told me countless times that if I needed him, he would drop everything and come where I’m at.”
He said soldiers from New York, Long Island, Arizona, Texas and Georgia, to name a few, came to Mr. Meredith’s Celebration of Life last Friday. Mrs. Meredith was the remarkable one, he said.
“Everybody came from all over the states just to see how strong she was while grown men were crying as she was making jokes to lighten the mood,” he said. “It was extraordinary to see.”
IT BEGAN IN SACKETS
Mr. Meredith and Mrs. Meredith met when they were in middle school. Mr. Meredith moved to Sackets Harbor from Washington state at 15 years old. Mrs. Meredith, a Sackets Harbor native, was 13 years old and was quick to pick on the new kid.
She went up to him and asked for his Nutty Bar. It was a friendship at first, forming into a stronger connection and eventual relationship. He later asked her out at her 14th birthday party with a giant Hershey’s Kiss and in front of her friends. She was a ball of energy with a sense of humor, and he was easygoing with a sense of humor.
Both were mischievous but always respectful. It wasn’t full Bonnie and Clyde, but the pair once broke into a home together — accidently — when they were teenagers, after a friend told them they could go inside.
“We were all so excited to see them get together,” said Sonya Esposito, one of Mr. Meredith’s favorite teachers at Sackets Harbor. “I think they complemented each other really well.”
It’s difficult moving to a small school at that point in his life, with all his classmates already having formed friend groups, but it was different for Mr. Meredith.
“Right away, you knew he was going to fit right in,” Mrs. Esposito said. “He was just so funny and kind and always smiling. The best part was you could joke with him big time. I started teasing him right from the get-go.”
Above all, teachers who knew Mr. Meredith said he was one of the more memorable students they had. He was funny and easy to talk to and would always own up to any sort of goofing off he was doing.
“I never witnessed a student who didn’t like Garrett,” said Barbara Gillett, who taught Mr. Meredith science his junior year. “You had to work really hard not to like him.”
Mr. Meredith’s death struck the Sackets Harbor community hard, but it did come to help. A GoFundMe has raised nearly $14,000 for funeral expenses.
“I don’t personally care about the money,” his wife said. “I would rather have him. But that just shows how many people are supportive and loving and caring for me and this man.”
They had just built a home in Colorado. She was, and still is, studying to become a special education teacher, and they had two dogs, Carson and Tucker. The pair got married in 2017, a year between his two deployments, in a courthouse and flashed their middle fingers at the camera for a photo. They had a bit of a chip on their shoulders in their pursuit to be together forever.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love,” she said. “Garrett and I always knew that no matter what anyone else thought, it was him and I. We would always stand up for ourselves and prove people wrong. That’s the best way I could put it. I know they say until death do us part, but it’s until forever for me.”
Mr. Meredith is going to receive full military honors in Sackets Harbor on July 10 at 1 p.m. for a burial with his headstone. A Celebration of Life will follow the service at the Sackets Harbor American Legion at 2 p.m.