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GALLAGHER: Galva, Iowa, soldier's family presses on after his death

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GALVA, Iowa | Lisa Naslund keeps two business cards near the phone. When she goes to bed, the cards find a place on her nightstand.

She and husband Jeff won't let themselves stray far from a soldier -- or a soldier's family in need.

They've lived a nightmare in their losing son, U.S. Army Sgt. Dillion Naslund, who completed tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tour that followed at home was the one he didn't handle. He committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest on a gravel road south of Storm Lake, Iowa, on Dec. 10.

Highly decorated, highly revered, and, apparently, at a desperate crossroads. He was 25.

Rather than fading to black as TV segments and our memories do in the wake of a death, Jeff and Lisa Naslund move the opposite direction. Working with producer/director Tom Zwemke, they cast bright lights on Dillion's death. A 46-minute documentary named "Dillion" shows next month on KPTS-TV in Wichita, Kan., a Kansas Public Television station. Its airing may follow in other states.

"I want no other mother to be so brokenhearted," Lisa Naslund says, wiping tears. "We're so brokenhearted. We'll never be the same."

Never the same? That describes Dillion Naslund, the 2006 Galva-Holstein High School graduate who pleaded with his mother to let him join the U.S. Army two months shy of his 18th birthday.

She pushed the contract back at the recruiter for two hours while sitting with Jeff, Dillion and the recruiter at the family's dining room table. Exasperated, Dillion finally pleaded, "Mom, I'm turning 18 in two months. I really want your blessing. Would you please sign?"

She did and off he went, eventually representing the third generation of Naslund men in U.S. military conflict overseas, serving from June 2007 to May 2008 in Iraq, and from August 2010 to September 2011 in Afghanistan.

"He was a fighter," Lisa says, remembering how, as a newborn, he struggled for his survival, spending 12 days in a neonatal intensive care unit.

His calls home during war came infrequently. And came in family code. "Mama Bear, it's me," he'd tell his mother. "Baby Bear is calling."

Dillion Naslund got a hero's welcome home. He partied, renewed old ties and feasted with family. He rode the euphoria for a few months before attempting to settle into civilian life around this Ida County town.

"He tried hard, but he could not pull his life puzzle back together," his father says.

Friends and family members noticed Dillion's drinking habits. He'd party late into the night and not rise in time for work. He wasn't the same happy-go-lucky Dillion they remembered.

Normal tasks presented challenges. Certain people and the earth's physical features occasionally transported Dillion back to his place at war. He'd shrug off offers for help, saying that, as a soldier, he needed to deal with demons that often flashed in nightmares and cold sweat.

"It's my job to take care of it," he'd say.

One year ago this month, Dillion woke his sister Krystal Peterson and her family in Galva. He didn't mean to, but a noise he made startled them in the middle of the night. They discovered a note and learned he was kissing them goodbye.

They took him to the Sioux Falls Veterans Administration Health Care System "and he stayed there a few days," Lisa Naslund says. "We moved him back home."

Dillion drank. He couldn't overcome the demons. "The Beast" is a code word of sorts for this trouble, Lisa says. It's commonly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an issue that has the attention of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which made June its "PTSD awareness month."

"Many barriers keep people with PTSD from seeking the help they need," says Dr. Matthew Friedman, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD. "Knowledge and awareness, however, are key to overcoming these barriers. For those living with PTSD, knowing there are treatments that work, for example, can lead them to seek needed care."

Lisa Naslund says soldiers should be counseled about issues like PTSD three, six or nine months after coming home. "Dillion believed he was alone and the only one suffering in that way," she says.

How many suffering with PTSD commit suicide? While the number isn't known, a Department of Veterans Affairs study shows that 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves each day, one for every 65 minutes.

Results of the study came on the heels of military reports that acknowledged suicides hit a peak in 2012 with 349 active-duty suicides, or about one per day. There were more active-duty suicides last year than combat deaths.

"We have more work to do and we will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts," said Eric Shinseki, Veterans Affairs secretary.

Again, how many suicides can be directly linked to PTSD isn't known. The Naslunds have their hunch, and it's a bunch. That's exactly what they're thinking in releasing "Dillion." They'll head to Kansas this month to fulfill interview requests prior to the television debut of a heart-breaking film.

"We wanted to do this as long as it helps others recognize PTSD, and the fact it doesn't just come from war, but from all sorts of trauma," Lisa Naslund says.

Walking up to the bedroom her son kept at their home north of Galva, Lisa recalls the last time she spoke with Dillion. It was Dec. 10, 2012. Dillion was trying to make a go of it in a home at Ida Grove, Iowa. He'd fallen behind on the rent and his mother showed up to help with finances. She also offered her brand of tough love, and urged him to let others help.

"He told me I didn't understand," she says. "I said 'Dillion, I don't, but I am trying.'"

Five days later she and Jeff sat before his flag-draped coffin at the gymnasium in Galva. He was buried with full military rites in a cemetery the Naslunds can see from their home.

Any second thoughts they had in proceeding with a documentary on Dillon's life vanished as messages swept in following his death. One soldier, upon learning of Dillion's suicide, contacted his commanding officer and got help for PTSD.

Five other soldiers, all independent of one another, did the same. Those six men are alive today and coping with "The Beast," finding the resources they need to get better. Finding help to survive.

Those men, their families and a memory of her late son have Lisa Naslund placing business cards by her phone. Numbers for the Veterans Crisis Line and Camp Dodge Service Member Support Center at Johnston, Iowa, are never far from her fingertips.

She'll share those numbers, anytime, anyplace. Same goes for the heart-breaking tale of the decorated son she lost only after he made it home.

Running her hands across a photo of Dillion Naslund, his mother says, "We're sharing our heartache in hopes of helping others."

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All veterans, service members, military families and the community are invited to attend a free open house for Operation Engage America from 1-4 p.m. April 30 at Kings Pointe Water Park Resort, 1520 E Lakeshore Drive.

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