Terminally ill vet's final mission: Helping others choose life

As America honors those who've served their country, we cannot ignore the epidemic of suicide among veterans.

Every day, 22 commit suicide -- 8,000 per year. That's more than the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. We met a soldier whose final mission is to stop this.

In July of 2007, Lt. Justin Fitch was deployed -- and depressed -- in Northern Iraq.

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Justin Fitch wants other veterans to know there is help for those returning from the front suffering depression.

CBS News

"We lost 15 to 16 people killed in action from our task force," said Fitch, noting the toll the casualties took on him. "It is never good to see someone that was just a good person hauled away on a stretcher with an American flag over them."

Fitch hit bottom. His buddy, Lt. Benjamin Hall, was killed in Afghanistan.

"I took my M4 assault rifle, put in a round in the chamber, flipped the safety switch from 'safe' to 'fire'...and put the muzzle to my head," Fitch remembered, but instead of pulling the trigger, he heard Hall's voice.

"I just pictured his face smiling, saying 'Just put the gun down.'"

He said he doesn't know how close he came to pulling the trigger.

"Honestly I don't know how I am alive today," said Fitch. "It literally could have been a sneeze or my finger twitch and that trigger would have gone off."

Fitch got counseling, recovered, and served a second deployment in Iraq. But in May of 2012, while stationed in Massachusetts, his intestines exploded.

"When they did the surgery they discovered a bunch of small tumors that couldn't be picked up on the scans and they were spread all over the place," he said. "(When) I woke up, I was told that I had stage 4 cancer and it is incurable."

Colon cancer. Doctors tell him he has months to live.

He has chemotherapy every other week, because the 32-year-old has a new mission: stopping military suicides, through a group called "Carry the Fallen."

Last Sunday, volunteers marched the entire Boston Marathon course, 26.2 miles, to raise money and awareness of the issue.

He said he has a message for vets and soldiers going through the depression he went through.

"There is hope that it is not a sign of weakness," he said. "To get help, it is a sign of strength."

Army medic Denise Florio returned from Iraq in 2004 suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. She still calls Fitch when she is feeling down.

"I did attempt suicide when I returned home," she said. "I was just very lost and lonely, trying to find my direction.

"I was a single mother at the time, so I had to come back and take off the uniform and be mom again," she said, shaking her head. "I couldn't adapt. It was too struggling [sic]."

Fitch will get a medical discharge and retire as a major in January ... and spend whatever time he has left helping keep other soldiers alive.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.