(Eagle file)

PITTSFIELD -- It will have been a month ago this Thursday since 28-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward S. Passetto stood before the flagpole at Berkshire Community College to speak about the importance of the American flag and raise it in awareness of Student Veterans Week at the college.

He spent seven years in the Marines, joining in 2004. He served as a Harrier jet mechanic and was deployed overseas for a tour in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2011, he became a veteran and was proud of it, saying so at public veterans events, on social media pages, and in the Letters to the Editor section of The Berkshire Eagle.

On Saturday morning, John Harding, also a Marine Corps veteran, said Passetto was supposed to join a group from the Vietnam Veterans of America James E. Callahan Chapter 65 to plant flags by veterans' tombstones in area cemeteries in advent of Memorial Day.

Passetto never showed. His body was found around 10 a.m. on the Monument Mountain Reservation in Great Barrington, the victim of an apparent suicide.

Crisis hotlines and websites: If you or someone you know is in crisis, there are resources available right now to help:   What to watch for: If someone you know is in crisis, there are signs to look out for. The following information has been supplied by suicidepreventionlifeline.org, webmd.com, and Brenda Carpenter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Berkshire County:
  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves.
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.
  • Always talking or thinking about death.
  • Clinical depression -- deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating -- that gets worse
  • Having a "death wish," tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving fast or running red lights
  • Losing interest in things one used to care about
  • Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
  • Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, changing a will
  • Saying things like "it would be better if I wasn't here" or "I want out."
  • Sudden, unexpected switch from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy
  • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye.

"We're all very, very shocked," said Harding, who serves on the Chapter 65 board and is a past sergeant of arms for the Marine Corps League and junior vice commander for the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

"I worked with him personally," Harding told The Eagle on Monday. "He was very active in the Pittsfield Marine Corps League Detachment 137. We were going to meet this week on other veterans coming home."

Ongoing struggles

(Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

During the years of his service, the time after he left active duty and in the wake of his death, Passetto indicated his struggles relating to his association with the military, from mental-health issues to his long-term fight to claim disability benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Unfortunately, he's the victim of what he wanted to help," Harding said of Passetto and the veteran's death.

Harding said local members of the Marine Corps will be present at funeral services, which haven't been announced, to honor Passetto. Harding also said the struggles of returning veterans will be part of the Memorial Day addresses he will deliver this month in Pittsfield.

On Sunday, the CBS television show "60 Minutes" aired a segment called "Succeeding As Civilians," detailing the challenges veterans have when trying to re-integrate into civilian life.

The segment stated there are 3 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In additions to facing unemployment, nearly half have a disability because of their service.

CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported, "Most tragically, more soldiers killed themselves last year than died at the hands of the enemy."

"There are two parts of these things that are always disturbing," said Jack Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, a private organization that works to support veterans and prevent veteran homelessness and operates headquarters in Pittsfield and Leeds.

"For all of us who work in this field, it makes us aware that the system is far from perfect," Downing said. "There are cracks in the foundation and people slip through them. We're usually unaware of them until there's a tragedy, and that's the sad part of it."

"Many young people come back from conflict and disguise their pain and their needs," he said.

Outdated program

When military personnel retire, are discharged or separated from service, they are issued a document generally referred to as a "DD 214," or a certificate of release or discharge from active duty. Then they are offered the opportunity to take a TAP (Transition Assistance Program) class, a series of workshops meant to help veterans learn how to prepare for a post-military career.

The 20-year-old program was criticized of being so outdated and irrelevant that it is undergoing an overhaul and being renamed as Transition Goals Plans Success, or Transition GPS.

After that, veterans typically are on their own.

"I had to do everything myself," Passetto said at the April 16 ceremony at BCC.

Passetto appeared to have been a self-advocate. In a March 2011 interview with The Eagle, he said he began looking for a summer job but "couldn't find the kind of work that could pay the bills."

In May 2011, he said he began filing his disabilities claims.

Downing calls this "a horrible, horrible mess of data and paper."

"When we send our kids off to college and other places, they're coming back better. We're not expecting them to come back worse, which is happening with this war we're in," Downing said.

He said returning military personnel -- at one time fighters, providers and protectors -- face the stigma of asking for help socially, emotionally and financially, and being offered only minimum-wage jobs.

"There are a lot coming back and going on unemployment," Downing said. "You end up with young men and women who can't find a job while waiting for benefits and think there's a system that doesn't care."

Not getting very far with finding a job or receiving his benefits, Passetto decided to take advantage of his Montgomery GI Bill benefit and enrolled in Berkshire Community College to study manufacturing in the fall of 2011.

Passetto died still waiting for help, still not getting compensation for the damage he incurred as a Marine.

Downing said he met with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, VA members and other state officials to specifically talk about veterans benefits and the time period for claims in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Downing said that in Vermont and New Hampshire, it takes approximately 15 days for a claim to officially be processed and filed into the VA system. In Massachusetts, the process takes place within 30 days, he said.

‘System is broken'

The problem is, according to Downing, there still are hundreds of thousands of claims that have been in the system for more than a year, getting further backlogged as troops return and file new claims.

"The system is broken, and it falls on all of us," Downing said. "We need to be accountable for what we didn't do for this young man if we had been more effective at our jobs."

Passetto was a 2004 graduate of Lee Middle and High School, where he was a member of Lee High's Alpine ski team, coached by his late father, Michael Passetto.

Upon graduation, Passetto went right into the Marines. He was deployed overseas twice -- once each to Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the time of his death, he was enrolled as a student at BCC.

"We are saddened by the news that Ed Passetto, a BCC student and friend, has passed away," the college said on its Facebook page on Sunday. "Our hearts go out to his family and friends. This is a terrible loss to all of us."

Counseling and grief support services were offered Monday to the BCC community, and will continue to be offered this week. The college flew its flags at half-staff Monday in Passetto's honor.

The Eagle's Dick Lindsay contributed to this report.

Veterans across the country are having hard times readjusting to civilian life. Read their stories and learn about ways to help here.