Surviving minute to minute
FORT LESLEY J. MCNAIR, D.C. -- As she sat at the picnic table, with her legs crossed at her ankles and hands clasped together in her lap, she looked off in the distance and smiled as she began to describe her daughter.
"She was always smiling, joking and laughing," said the mother of two. "Sometimes I just laugh when I think of her, because she was so funny. She was a princess. I still call her my Principessa, she loved it when I would call her that."
The bond between a mother and child is often revered as one of the strongest a person can experience. For many it starts before birth and lasts a lifetime. It transcends all boundaries and can endure any force.
This was certainly true for Staff Sgt. Sirlen Arriaza, an automated logistical specialist with 911th Engineer Company, 12th Aviation Battalion, and her daughter Evelin. However, nothing could have prepared Arriaza for how her life would change in June 2016.
Evelin was born May 28, 1998, in Costa Rica. She was Arriaza's and her husband's second child.
"When she was born she was very sick," Arriaza said. "None of the doctors in Costa Rico knew what was wrong with her."
In March 2002, Arriaza's husband's job relocated the family to the United States. It was then, Evelin, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and an autoimmune disorder that affected her liver.
Soon after being diagnosed, Evelin became the youngest patient to undergo an experimental treatment to address her health issues.
"She immediately started to get better," said Arriaza. "I was so happy and grateful to see her become a normal child, playing and doing well in school. We still had to go to the [emergency room] sometimes, but even with all of that she was so strong and never complained."
Arriaza join the Army in 2010 after receiving her permanent residence in 2009. She wanted to provide the best opportunities for her family and ensure her daughter would have access to adequate medical care.
"It was important to me that she had really good health insurance, because she would eventually need a liver transplant," she explained.
After Arriaza completed Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, the family was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where Arriaza soon deployed for the first time to Iraq in 2011.
"When I came back from deployment she was 13 [years old] and I noticed she had changed a lot," Arriaza remembered. "She always wanted to be with me, and also seemed to be very angry at times."
As Evelin settled further into adolescence, she began to struggle with bouts of depression and suicidal ideations. She began treatment to address her mental health concerns.
When the family was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado in March 2013, Evelin started in a private Jewish high school. She began to prosper after getting involved in sports, playing on the varsity soccer and basketball teams. The teen seemed to have a new outlook, she had made new friends and even began volunteering after school with a group called Girls Inc. The group tutored students who spoke English as a second language.
"If you were to see her you would think that she is such a happy person with a really good heart," Arriaza said. "She always cared a lot about others."
Evelin graduated high school in 2016, and planned to continue her education. She wanted to one day work in the medical field and help others, like her doctors had helped her, said Arriaza. She was doing better, however continued to struggle with her mental health.
In June 2016, Arriaza was stationed in Korea without her family.
"She wasn't happy when we found out I would be leaving," said Arriaza. "When I left I remember hugging her so many times. I told her please promise me you'll be here when I get back. She said 'Mom go, go, go don't be [silly]'. There was something in my heart that just didn't feel right, but I wasn't sure what it was."
A couple of weeks after arriving in Korea, Arriaza received a phone call from Evelin. She was sobbing and explained that she and her longtime boyfriend had an argument.
"She said 'Mom, I wish you were here, I miss you'," Arriaza recalled. "I asked sweetie are you ok, do I need to wake your father? She said 'Oh no I am just angry and upset with my boyfriend that's all'. We talked for a while and then she told me she loved me. That was the last thing she said to me."
The next morning Arriaza was awakened by a flood of phone calls.
"When I woke up that morning I immediately knew something was wrong," she said before pausing for a moment. "She hanged herself that night. On her mirror she left me a note that said 'Mom, I love you'."
Arriaza immediately returned to Fort Carson on emergency leave. After reading Evelin's diary, Arriaza learned how troubled her daughter was.
"On June 15 she wrote 'Mom, I love you. Please forgive me, but I cannot go on'," Arriaza said. "After we read all of the messages and talked with the investigators assigned to the case, we found out about all of the abuse."
For over a year Evelin was emotionally abused by her boyfriend.
"I knew him and he seemed like a very good boy," she said, before shaking her head in disbelief. "I used to tell her all of the time how good I thought he was for her. I didn't know anything about the abuse."
Arriaza feels that the abuse compacted with her daughter's ongoing medical issues was more than her fragile daughter could bare.
"We were always close, like crazy close, but I didn't realize how troubled she was," said Arriaza. "She didn't ask for help. She acted like everything is OK."
Following her daughter's suicide, Arriaza's doctors and leadership determined it was in her best interest to be stationed in a unit with better access to treatment to address her needs. On March 3, 2017, she arrived at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and was assigned to her current unit.
"For a long time I didn't deal with my daughter's suicide," she recalled. "I tried really hard, but I just couldn't. During that time the only thing I wanted to do was to die. I would fall asleep every night asking God not to let me wake up. I was very depressed and I couldn't see my life going on. I truly wanted to die. All I could do was survive one minute to the next, because I knew I had to keep going for my son."
She was referred to both inpatient and outpatient treatments.
"When I went to behavioral health, I would go through the motions and tell the doctors I wasn't at risk of hurting myself," she said. "I don't think I was, but at that time I did think about dying a lot."
Arriaza turned to the internet seeking answers. She read countless articles and blogs written by loved ones of suicide victims and survivors.
"That depressed me more," said Arriaza. "Many of the blogs were about mothers that lost their jobs and neglected their other children. At that time it felt like there was this hole that was constantly in front of me and all I wanted to do is jump in it."
Six months after her daughter's suicide, Arriaza met with a mother who lost her son 18 years prior.
"She told me that after losing her son she didn't get out of her bed for the first four years and ended up losing her job," Arriaza said, with a stunned expression. "She began crying uncontrollably, as we spoke, like it had just happened."
Arriaza was overwhelmed with the grief she was experiencing, she was desperate to find a way to adjust to the tragedy she had experienced.
In November 2017, Arriaza attended the Soldier 360 Leaders Course, a weeklong training event hosted by the U.S. Army Military District of Washington on Joint Base Myer - Henderson Hall, Virginia. The course uses a holistic approach to equip leaders with life skills in all areas of resiliency. It focuses on enhancing strength in leaders while providing relevant and essential tools to help them lead service members.
"In the class they talked about how matter isn't destroyed, it's only transferred," she said. "That's what I think about [Evelin's] pain. The pain she was feeling was transferred to me and everyone who loved her the most. I am now carrying her pain on top of the pain for losing her."
The course was a turning point for Arriaza's grieving process.
"With this class and continuing my therapy I really started to try to forgive myself and understand there was nothing I could have done different," Arriaza said. "Could I have stayed here and not gone to Korea? Maybe, but I don't know that for sure. It still hurts, but I am not at the place where I want to die."
She is still traveling on her journey through the grief process, however, has begun to see all of the light around her.
"Now I can see my son and I want to see him get married and have kids," she said, as her eyes lit up with excitement. "I want to meet my grandchildren one day. Before I couldn't even think that far. It still hurts, but now I have found reasons to live."
She feels the Army kept her from falling deeper in her depression.
"I love my career and my unit," said Arriaza. "The best thing the military did for me was it forced me to get up every day to come to [work] and see people, talk to people. My leadership encouraged me to get the help I needed. I am thankful, because if I was a civilian I am not sure that would have been the case."
Arriaza feels she is now ready to get involved and help others. She offers this advice to those who have experienced similar losses.
"The pain will never fade or go away," she said, as her voice quivered. "But, you will learn what it feels like to live with this pain and you will one day be able to feel blessed for the time you had with that person. That's why now, I try to enjoy every moment I have with a person. I don't let people get me upset anymore, after her death I just can't, there isn't anything important enough now. You may find yourself in that dark hole, but, just survive for that one minute, then for that hour, and then that day. It is not only about being alive, it is about living, about finding the small light inside you that makes you want to live. It took me 17 months to find a tiny light, but I did it and so can you. Your life is a gift."
The U.S. Army Military District of Washington serves as the Army Forces Component and core staff element of Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region, which conducts operations that deter, prevent and respond to threats aimed at the National Capital Region. The U.S. Army Military District of Washington also conducts world-class ceremonial musical and special events in support of our nation's leadership.