TAMPA — Why?
That’s the question the family and friends of Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette are struggling to answer.
At 30, Brunette seemingly had it all. A vivacious and attractive athlete and scholar, she had been lauded by the Air Force for her work in Afghanistan, was a partner in a fitness center about to open in Largo and was known by her family and friends as being the strong one always ready to help others.
But for some reason, Brunette, who left active duty after 11 years last June and joined the Air Force Reserve, couldn’t help herself.
On Feb. 9, Tampa police found her slumped over in the back of her locked Chrysler 200 sedan outside a Harbour Island cafe near her apartment. Police say it appears she killed herself with her Smith & Wesson .380 handgun, which she purchased about six months earlier.
Now family and friends are trying to come to grips with the pain behind Brunette’s effervescent smile that caused her to become one of the 22 veterans a day who take their own lives, according to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs study. It’s a problem that’s vexing both the military and the VA, which are struggling to find ways to prevent suicides.
According to a study published this month in the medical journal Annals of Epidemiology, the nearly 1.3 million veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2007 had a 41 percent to 61 percent higher risk of suicide than the general population, with 1,868 committing suicide during that time period. And while female veterans were far less likely than men to commit suicide, when compared to those who never served, female veterans were more likely to commit suicide than male veterans.
The problem is so pervasive that on Feb. 12, three days after Brunette’s death, President Barack Obama signed into law the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, among other things making it easier for veterans to seek treatment from the VA.
The story of Brunette’s life speaks volumes about the difficulty of dealing with veteran suicides, say her family and friends.
“She had so much going for her,” says Jackie Leverich, 40, Brunette’s oldest sister. “She was so full of hope and wonderment and passion and excitement for life.”
But like others who spoke about Brunette, Leverich, who flew to Tampa from her home in California to help set up memorial services, believes something traumatic happened to her sister in Afghanistan. Something that she was reluctant to discuss, making it hard for anyone to help.
“She kept it hidden,” says Leverich, whose main contact with her sister, on the other end of the country, was through Facebook pictures that showed a happy 30-something with high hopes. “I think in order for us to really have done something about it, we would have had to catch the signs and realize how serious it was and we probably would have had to fly down here and do a confrontation. Whatever happened to her, she buried it and I think it killed her in the end.”
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Jamie Brunette grew up in suburban Milwaukee, the youngest of five siblings and daughter of a veteran who did a four-year stint in the Army.
“Growing up, she had always been contagious,” says Leverich. “She always had a smile that lights up every room.”
Brunette shared a room with her sister Nikki, who was three years older, their entire childhood.
“We were two peas in a pod,” Nikki Brunette recalled during a memorial service for her sister held at MacDill Air Force Base, where Brunette had served with the 6th Contracting Squadron. “We did everything together. She was my best friend. Together we felt we could conquer the world. We laughed together. We cried together. But best of all, we supported each other unconditionally.”
That included constant running in preparation for trying out for their school cross country teams.
“We had done it,” says Nikki Brunette. “We had taken on this new challenge and pulled each other to the top. It was in this moment that the spark in Jamie began to glow bright. Each year after, that spark grew bigger and brighter transforming Jamie into the bright, bubbly girl who could make a bad day good with just her smile.”
After graduating from Oneida Baptist Institute, a Kentucky boarding high school, Brunette enlisted in the Air Force. She also got married.
A few years after enlisting, Brunette decided she wanted to become an officer. On Oct. 10, 2007, she wrote a letter stating why she would make an excellent candidate.
“Hard work, a strong focus and a great attitude have proven to be key components to accomplishing my goals and continued success,” she wrote. “I pride myself on achieving the Dean’s List and upon the completion of my bachelor’s degree I hope to serve my country as a Commissioned Officer in the United States Air Force.”
Three years later, on Feb. 18, 2010, she achieved that goal and was promoted to second lieutenant.
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After stops at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Brunette, by now divorced, was stationed at MacDill with the 6th Contracting Squadron on Feb. 23, 2010. She deployed to Afghanistan from August 2012 to March 2013. She was stationed at Camp Stone in Herat Province, where she was responsible for nearly $80 million in contracts providing security and infrastructure to three forward operating bases, according to her commander at the time, Lt. Col. George Scheers Jr.
For her work in Afghanistan, Brunette earned the Contracting Officer of the Year Award from Air Mobility Command, the major command overseeing MacDill.
“She made a difference in the global war on terrorism,” Scheers said at Brunette’s memorial service, held Feb. 15. “Capt. Brunette was a phenomenal officer. ... Her quest for excellence and drive for success extended far beyond the walls of the squadron. She earned a perfect score on every fitness test in her Air Force career and won first place in over 20 5K runs on base.”
But when Brunette returned from Afghanistan, family and friends noticed a change.
The last time Leverich saw Brunette was shortly after her return, at their sister’s wedding.
“She seemed upbeat,” says Leverich, “but she wasn’t really giving us a whole lot of detail about life and what was going on.”
Leverich says she suspects, though has no proof, that her sister was sexually assaulted in Afghanistan.
“I suspect she was assaulted, and she didn’t feel comfortable reporting it for some reason and internalized the incident so she could finish her deployment, which she did with flying colors,” says Leverich. “It’s not anything she told me, just from talking with all her friends this past week, and piecing those things together. I am female active duty, 18 years in the Coast Guard. I am well aware of those issues, and that’s my gut feeling.”
A year later, in June 2014, Brunette left active duty and opted for the Air Force Reserve. Air Force Lt. Col Kurt Spranger, her business partner at Orangetheory Fitness, which was scheduled to open up a Largo franchise in March, surmises that she wanted to leave active duty because of her experience in Afghanistan. Spranger met Brunette through a friend of his son, and he and his wife Malia struck up a friendship with her that ultimately led to all three going into business together.
“I do not know the detail, but unequivocally I can say, yes, something happened, something that should never happen to a human,” says Spranger, who works at the international special operations unit known as the J3-I at U.S. Special Operations Command. “Something happened and it was why she wanted to get out. So she wouldn’t have to deploy again.”
Heather Milner, 25, met Brunette about a year ago through a mutual friend named Nicole Sawyer. Because Sawyer, who was Milner’s roommate, wanted to move across the bay to be closer to work, Milner and Brunette decided to share an apartment on Harbour Island.
As she got to know Brunette, Milner began to notice that her roommate was withdrawing. Brunette, says Milner, was reluctant to talk about Afghanistan.
“I had to pry it out of her,” says Milner. “I remember talking with her on Memorial Day. We had a heart-to-heart. She got emotional and started talking about it with me.”
Brunette recalled one time being on the telephone, trying to help someone get his payment on time, when she heard the man get shot to death, says Milner. Brunette, she says, also talked about coming under fire and running to bunkers and seeing people on her base get blown up.
“A lot of people deal with that when they are deployed,” says Milner. “Death is normal, but when you get home and it is not a normal thing and you have to adjust to what is normal.”
Due to prior commitments for Scheers, Brunette’s former commander, MacDill officials could not comment prior to deadline.
The Hillsborough County medical examiner’s initial report states that Brunette had a “long tobacco and alcohol abuse history” and was suffering from depression and anxiety.
Milner says Brunette confided in her that she was seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder from the VA and had been depressed. The VA, citing privacy issues, could not comment. She says that Brunette’s behavior further changed when she began seeing a new boyfriend.
“Everyone started noticing it around October time,” says Milner. “She got into a new relationship and started doing things out of character. She started partying really hard. It got to the point that it was very excessive.”
But Spranger, who was in daily contact with Brunette as they worked to set up the fitness center, says he didn’t notice any problems.
“There were no red flags at all. That’s why I am so blown away,” says Spranger. “Her performance at work was awesome.”
About six months ago, Brunette bought a gun, says Milner. But because of her military background, that was not out of the ordinary. Sawyer and Spranger, agree.
“She got her gun and her concealed carry permit,” says Milner. “It made sense for her. When she was overseas, she has a weapon on her all the time.”
But Brunette was very cautious with the gun, says Milner.
“As far as I know, she never took it out with her,” says Milner. “It was in a box, underneath her dresser the entire time. I never saw the thing come out.”
About two weeks before her death, Brunette broke up with her boyfriend, says Spranger.
When police arrived at the scene shortly before noon Feb. 9, they found Brunette slumped over to the left in the back seat of her car. The gun was against her on the seat. The gun case was on the floor.
The news sent shock waves around the country.
“She went boating with a bunch of friends the day before,” says Jackie Leverich. “Everyone was shocked. They had a great time. People who were with her that day say that had no idea she was hurting so badly.”
For Leverich, talking about her sister is difficult but worth it if it can help others.
“She would honestly be the last person we would ever think would do this,” says Leverich. “Ever. If she did this, I can’t even imagine what other people are going through. She helped so many people throughout her life that if we can help some people through her death, and get the word out about PTSD, she would want that.”
Brunette’s death released an outpouring of support. Between the MacDill ceremony and celebration of life at Orangetheory later that day, hundreds showed up to honor Brunette, releasing scores of Chinese lanterns toward the heavens in the evening.
Knowing the VA was providing only a $1,500 burial benefit, Sawyer started a gofundme site, hoping to raise $10,000 for funeral expenses, with the remainder going to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson’s Jackson in Action 83 Foundation, which provides support to military families. Jackson was friends with Brunette, Sawyer and Spranger say. As of Friday, the fundraiser had more than doubled its goal.
There will be a fundraising run on Brunette’s behalf at 6 p.m. Wednesday starting at Irish 31, 1611 W. Swann Ave., Tampa, where Brunette was a member of its running club. All proceeds go to Jackson’s foundation.
The family is planning a burial sometime in the near future at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.