‘I could never let go. I still can’t and I won’t’– swim in Bellingham Bay honors troops with PTSD
It was 6 a.m. on a Monday morning when Laurie Fueston got the news that her 19-year-old son Josh was never coming home.
It had been February since Josh had been home in Bellingham. February since Laurie had last fixed him the large breakfast he was playfully teased about as a kid. February since he sat across from his mother in the living room and said he didn’t want to go back to Iraq.
February when things in the Fueston’s lives started going horribly wrong.
“He sat in that chair, and his hands were almost black from lack of circulation and I knew he was in trouble,” Laurie Fueston said. “He was gone. He was emotionally gone.”
Josh, a private first class in the Army, had served a five-month tour in Iraq before health concerns sent him home. Josh suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) his mother said, and his body was beginning to feel the toll.
During his flight back across the Atlantic, after his brief visit home, Josh began convulsing on the airplane, which was then diverted back to Dover Air Force Base. Josh was transported to the nearest hospital, Laurie said, where he spent one week before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Josh was just one of the estimated more than 300,000 troops serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to develop symptoms of PTSD. And on September 13, 2009, he also became just one of the growing numbers of service members to commit suicide.
According to Army reports, suicides rates amongst U.S. Military members have been on the rise since 2001. In 2008, the last year with available data, the suicide rate among active military members was 16.3 for every 100,000, up from 10.3 in 2001.
After a suicide attempt in June, Josh was receiving out-patient treatment at Walter Reed. The Friday before his death, Fueston said, a friend of Josh’s had called the hospital to report that Josh had left suicidal messages on his Facebook page. After spending Friday night in the emergency room, his mother said, Josh was placed on suicide watch. He was supposed to receive a well-fare call every two hours.
“I kept telling them, ‘Please hang on to him,’” Fueston said of her conversations with staff at Walter Reed. “This girl is telling them that he’s [committing suicide] on his Facebook page, and they still let him go.”
Josh committed suicide on a Sunday morning. Laurie Fueston had reservations to visit him by train for Tuesday. She brought Josh’s body back to Bellingham, where tiny American flags now fly over his headstone at Bayview Cemetery.
“The military was such a small part of his life,” Fueston said. “Such a smaller part of who he was.”
As a child, Josh was a talkative, friendly boy, Fueston said, always on the look out for ways to help. He was a musician, an athlete, and a lifeguard at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.
At age 14, Josh knew he wanted to give back to this community that had already given him so much, his mother said. While recovering from a bicycle accident, he planned his next move: an eight-mile swim across Bellingham Bay.
The money he raised from sponsorships and donations, Fueston said, would go toward a scholarship fund that could be used for children to receive swim lessons.
“The point being to save a life, we still hear of so many kids that have drowned,” Fueston said. “If people could swim one quarter, even less of the distance that he did, they could save their own lives. And that’s why Josh had wanted to do that.”
Fueston said she remembers that August day years ago when Josh attempted his eight-mile feat. The water was cold, and the swim was difficult she said, so much so that at some points she had to turn away. After four miles, when Josh was hypothermic and could do no more, he was pulled from the water, discouraged he didn’t finish.
But on August 22, almost seven years to the day when Josh began his labor of love, others will pick up where he left off during the 4-mile Josh Fueston Memorial Swim to Live.
Last year, seven swimmers, including service members, supporters and Laurie Fueston plunged into the 50-degree waters of Bellingham Bay to raise awareness about the U.S. troops, like Josh, who come home “quietly,” Fueston said.
It’s not a monetary donation Fueston said she’s looking for; it’s people. By rallying around our hometown heroes, community members can make a difference in the lives of service members suffering from PTSD.
“What can change is our education and what we can do,” Fueston said.
And while a portion of the money raised from the event will go toward Josh’s original purpose of providing swim lessons for underprivileged children through Blue Skies for Children, the concerns about the ongoing welfare of the troops is at the forefront of the event.
The men and women who participate in the swim, which this year includes an Army Colonel, will swim in honor of their comrades in arms, both near and far, here and gone.
For Laurie Fueston, the message of hope for better for our troops will always be the same. Every year, she said, the banquet that coincides with the swim will honor a different service member who has taken their own life during their struggle with PTSD.
But the swim will always be for Josh.
“I always hear this expression, ‘If you love something enough you’ll let it go,’” she said. “I loved enough. I could never let go. I still can’t and I won’t.”