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The life and death of Clay Hunt

The following script is from "The Life and Death of Clay Hunt" which aired on March 3, 2012. Byron Pitts is the correspondent. David Schneider, producer.

One of the leading causes of death for American military forces right now is suicide. In 2012, 349 active members of the Armed Forces took their own lives, more than who died in combat. When you add the suicides among veterans, the numbers are staggering. The VA estimates that as many as 22 veterans a day die by their own hands. Twenty-two each day.

This is the story of one: Clay Hunt from Houston, Texas, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After four years of a downward spiral, he took his own life in 2011. You'll see him in videos during some of his best times and hear him talk about some of his worst. Hunt loved being a Marine and serving his country and though he had been out of the Corps for two years when he died, Clay Hunt was a casualty of war.

This is Clay Hunt about a year before he killed himself. At 27, he thought he could make the world a better place.

[Question: Tell me who you are?

Clay Hunt: My name is Clay Hunt. I'm here because I'm needed here. ]

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Hunt -- a Marine combat veteran -- went back into action as a humanitarian.


VA Crisis Hotline
TAPS - Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors helps the families of vets that have died
Ride 2 Recovery - Featured in our story
Team Rubicon - Featured in our story
mtvU Half of Us Campaign - Helps people dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts

[Clay Hunt: I was there to do a job, to help people and that was such a great feeling, being able to actually get to work and help people and do good things and to not have to worry about getting shot at.

What Clay Hunt didn't say in this video is that by helping others, he was hoping to heal himself from the traumas of war. Hunt earned a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Iraq. A year later he deployed to Afghanistan. On both tours, he fought alongside Jake Wood.

Jake Wood: We became as close as friends can get.

Byron Pitts: Like brothers?

Jake Wood: Absolutely.

[Question: How do you know Jake?

Clay Hunt: He was best man at my wedding, he's my best friend for the last few years, he's the guy I asked to go get me a beer about 10 minutes after I got shot and he just laughed at me, but he's my brother, I'd die for him.]

Byron Pitts: He had so much going on for him. So, how could it happen to someone like Clay Hunt?

Jake Wood: I don't know. I don't know. Clay had the world at his fingertips. Clay could've done anything he wanted. He was smart. He was good-looking, charismatic. The ladies loved him. He was the all-American kid.

In early 2007, Clay Hunt and Jake Wood deployed to Iraq, outside Fallujah. Hunt later said, "that's when it all started - my life was changed forever." Only a month into their tour, Hunt's bunkmate, Blake Howey was killed by an IED. Three weeks later, another friend, Nathan Windsor, was shot in an ambush. Hunt was driving the platoon's Humvee a few yards away, under orders to stay put.

Jake Wood: Clay had to witness everything through a bulletproof windshield. He had to sit back and watch. And that was his job, and he did it. But it was, I think for him, a very-- it was a feeling of helplessness.

Susan Selke: He would tell me. He said, "Mom, that plays in my mind like a video over and over and it won't stop."

Susan Selke and Stacy Hunt are Clay's parents. From 6,000 miles away, they could sense the guilt and grief wash over him.

Susan Selke: He knew in his head there was nothing else that he could have done and he knew no one could have done anything more. But in his heart, it just-- it just tore him apart. Just tore him apart.

Stacy Hunt: It definitely changed him and in a way that we will never know how deeply it changed him.

Three days after Windsor's death, Hunt's platoon held a memorial service before heading out on patrol. Hours later, a sniper shot Hunt through the wrist, sending him back to his base in California. But being separated from his unit did more damage than the bullet and added to his helplessness.

Jake Wood: Just like when he was in that Humvee during Nathan's ambush, and he couldn't do anything, now he's at home and that's-- that's maddening.

Byron Pitts: Maddening because?

Jake Wood: You'd like to think that you have some control over the safety and wellbeing of your brothers. If you get sent home, you have no control.

Before long, Clay Hunt was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder - PTSD. Despite being placed on medication, he struggled with depression, panic attacks, and sleeplessness.

Jake Wood: It marked him. And I think he saw it as marking him as weak. Not being able to handle it.

Byron Pitts: Did guys treat him differently once they knew?

Jake Wood: No. I don't think so. I don't think so. He-- but he felt like they did.

Byron Pitts: I mean, there's no shame in that, right?

Jake Wood: Depends on who you ask and when. You know, ask a Marine rifleman if there's shame in having PTSD just coming back from a chest-thumping deployment to Iraq and he'll tell you, "You shouldn't have PTSD that's what we do."

Despite his injury and PTSD, Hunt followed Jake Wood into an elite sniper unit and deployed to Afghanistan. And that's when he started having doubts about the war.

Jake Wood: The rest of us refused to look at the larger picture of the war that we were fighting in Afghanistan. And Clay refused to allow himself not to look at it. He saw our friends continuing to die and get maimed. And, you know, we would go out on these missions, and we'd get in firefights where we'd kill people. And he had to justify that. And when those doubts start to creep in your mind, that's when you-- that's when you start to lose your mind. And that's what started to happen with Clay.

Hunt and Wood lost two more friends in Afghanistan. When he left the Marine Corps in 2009, Hunt was disillusioned by war and disappointed by what he found at home.

Stacy Hunt: He was saddened by the fact that Americans didn't seem to be impacted by what was going on in the world. That we lived kind of in a bubble.

Susan Selke: He said, "You know, the Marines are at war and America's at the mall." And it was just the realization of the disconnect.

Jake Wood also felt that disconnect. He was fresh out of the Marine Corps when that earthquake struck Haiti in 2010. Wood decided -- spur of the moment -- to lead a handful of veterans -- including Hunt -- on a relief mission. A month later, they responded to another quake in Chile.

[Clay Hunt: We found a need and we're bridging the gap.]

That was the beginning of Team Rubicon, an organization that helps veterans get back into civilian life by using their military skills in disaster relief.

Byron Pitts: What did Team Rubicon, what did the experience in Haiti give Clay?

Jake Wood: I think Clay found that sense of purpose, that identity that he wanted in the Marine Corps. He was helping put people's lives back together.

At the same time, Clay Hunt was struggling to put his life on track. His year old marriage was failing, divorce followed. He changed medications, looking for something that relieved his depression and anxiety without debilitating side effects. Still, Hunt wanted to help others. When he was at Loyola Marymount University, he agreed to talk about his problems publicly in this MTV college network video about depression.

[Clay Hunt: So I'm almost 10 years older than most of my classmates and so that makes it a little hard to relate to a lot of people just cause I have a whole lot of different life experiences than most 40 year olds. You know, I've done, seen things in my life that, for one, most people should never have to see.]

At the West Los Angeles VA, Hunt sought counseling off and on. But life became more difficult as VA delays in processing his benefits put Hunt under financial stress along with his depression.

Susan Selke: He's racking up credit card debt to try to cover things until that starts coming in. It's a very--

Byron Pitts: That must have frustrated him.

Stacy Hunt and Susan Selke: It was very frustrating.

Hunt found an outlet for his frustration riding a bicycle and through the VA he met pro-cyclist John Wordin. When Hunt's depression hit a new low in the fall of 2010, he dropped out of college. That's when Wordin took Hunt in to live with him and his family.

John Wordin: He was the darkest of the dark. You could look in his eyes and you could see that hopelessness.

Byron Pitts: Could he ever articulate what it was exactly?

John Wordin: He would always say, "I-- you know what, John? I don't feel like being here anymore."

Byron Pitts: Meaning?

John Wordin: He should've been killed in Iraq with his buddies.

[John Wordin: All you guys in the back, you gotta come forward!]

Wordin has worked with people like Clay Hunt since 2007 when he started an organization called Ride 2 Recovery.

[Bicyclist: Here we go baby!]

He organizes bike rides around the country for active duty military and veterans with psychological and physical wounds. The rides offer camaraderie and a chance to relate to others damaged by war. And the strenuous activity leads to something most are missing: sleep. Last October, 200 rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Byron Pitts: What happens on those rides?

John Wordin: It's magic. Something happens, they get so physically tired that they let their guard down. And all of a sudden it comes gushing out. And it's all different.

Byron Pitts: They're not alone.

John Wordin: Not only are they not alone, but they find that they have a way to overcome it.

Byron Pitts: What was Clay like on the rides?

John Wordin: He was great. I mean, he really enjoyed riding. That's what makes it so frustrating with how the end came. Because, like, he was always looking forward to the next ride. And then all of a

Hunt told John Wordin he'd be on the Ride 2 Recovery in Texas in March 2011. He had moved back to Houston, had a new job, a new truck, a new girlfriend, but was still haunted by what he had seen and done in war. On March 31st, Clay Hunt sat alone in his apartment and shot himself through the head. He was 28 years old.

Stacy Hunt: You never dream that a child will commit suicide. You never-- you just can't imagine things getting that bad, you know?

Susan Selke: If you don't have depression and anxiety under control, it's-- it is like a cancer. It will just-- it'll take you down.

And with his suicide, the pain and survivor's guilt that plagued Clay Hunt spread to those who knew and loved him.

Byron Pitts: Who do you blame? Do you blame anybody?

Stacy Hunt: I blame myself, you know, for not, you know, seeing the deadly mixture of his depression and his PTSD and for not reacting strongly enough.

Jake Wood: I can't pretend to know what it was that was particular about Clay that made him take his own life.

Byron Pitts: How often do you ask yourself that question?

Jake Wood: Every day. You know, it'll come to you at any hour and you wonder. What was it? What made Clay's experience and return home different from mine? What made it, you know, different from any other-- any of the other Marines we served with? And if I had known that, what could I have done differently?

Byron Pitts: It sounds like you have your own measure of survivor's guilt?

Jake Wood: Of course. Do I blame myself occasionally for Clay's death? Absolutely.

Byron Pitts: Why?

Jake Wood: I was Clay's partner in sniper school, and if there's one thing that you learn, is that you never under any circumstance, let your partner down.

Byron Pitts: But Clay didn't kill himself in sniper school. He didn't kill himself in Afghanistan or Iraq. He killed himself in his apartment, in Houston, Texas.

Jake Wood: That brotherhood doesn't stop. Doesn't end. Doesn't end when we take off the uniform, doesn't end when we come home. Doesn't end 60 years from now. I knew Clay was struggling. I knew he would-- had been suicidal. And I-- you know, I didn't-- there was more I could've done. And I owed it to him to do it. And I didn't.

Byron Pitts: You ever get angry with him about it?

Jake Wood: Yeah, I cuss him out all the time. I mean the fact that I had to come in here and do a 60 Minutes interview, and revisit all these things, I cursed him on the drive over her. I'll curse him on the drive home.

Byron Pitts: You blame him some?

Jake Wood: Unfortunately, yes. I do. You know, I'm having a wedding in six months, and there's a groomsmen's spot that's not going to be filled. You know, it's like-- of course I'm angry.

Byron Pitts: I'm struck by how everyone who was close to Clay-- each of you blame yourselves.

John Wordin: You feel like you let him down. You know, he counted on me as a guy that he knew he could count on. He could call me anytime, anywhere. He knew he was always welcome. And it's not enough. And you struggle with that.

Byron Pitts: How many Clays have you met?

John Wordin: He's the only one that ever went the final step. But guys that are like that, hundreds. Over the five years I've been doing that-- hundreds.

[Clay Hunt: We're veterans. We fought for our country and we've done what I think are great things. Yeah, they can be horrible things, but that's war and that's the way war's always been, but we're doing good things for our country and I think we deserve a lot better coming home as veterans. ]

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