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This Memorial Day there is one more family in Shelby County family that will remember a beloved son they never again will see but will hold in their hearts forever.
Sean Cassedy, 31, a Marine who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and was horribly wounded, came home to a hero’s welcome in Bagdad in 2003.
He survived the battlefield, but he could not overcome a battle raging inside him, spawned by memories of those bloody and awful days in combat in the Middle East.
On May 13, Cassedy took his own life in the parking lot of the Veteran’s Hospital in Louisville from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
His mother, Carol Cassedy, said she takes comfort from the fact that her son did not go into that dark night with no one around.
“He wasn’t alone when he died,” she said quietly. “The two Marines who folded the flag from Sean’s casket, they were the first responders.”
A parent’s nightmare
For Cassedy and her husband, Lin, who live in Bagdad, the nightmare of having to identify their boy’s body is something they said that time and years never will be able to erase.
“It’s so awful, and there’s a part of me that still doesn’t believe what happened,” Carol Cassedy said. “Lin and I and Sean’s oldest sister, we viewed the body, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done post mortems, but when it’s your own child… I just keep thinking, how could he have gotten to such an isolated, lonely, terrible place?”
Said Lin Cassedy: “The grief is horrible, just horrible.”
Carol Cassedy said the tragedy was made all the worse because, even though the family knew that their son had been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) since returning several years ago from his third tour of duty, they thought he was getting better. He was engaged to be married this summer and was just one semester away from earning his bachelor’s degree in education.
“We were supposed to meet for lunch, me and two of his sisters,” his mother said. “We were downtown [Louisville], trying to get a hold of Sean, and he didn’t answer his phone. For us, we are just thinking, what happened? What caused this? Sean’s not here for me to ask him, but I think he just got so mentally weary.”
Sean Cassedy’s struggle with PTSS was not new to the Cassedy family. Carol Cassedy, who is from California, said her father, a veteran of World War II and Korean, suffered from it and disappeared when she was 14 years old, never again to be seen by his family. Her husband also suffered from it from his time as a Marine in Vietnam.
Both of the Cassedys say they want to tell their son’s story in an attempt to help other veterans who are suffering with PTSS.
“We are our brothers’ keepers,” Lin Cassedy said. “We want to help these guys, because there are twenty-five suicides a day [nationally, from PTSS], and that really upsets me. There’s got to be a way to stop this. Our grief is horrible, but we’ve got to do something positive.”
Carol Cassedy: “I will never get over this. I never will, and I know that. Losing a child is the worse thing you could ever imagine having to go through. If there’s any consolation for me, it’s in helping others. That’s how I will get through this. For Sean it’s too late. But, maybe, for another family, maybe my words will help.”
A soldier’s story
Sean Cassedy never will be forgotten by his parents or his six siblings or the world, thanks to a book written about his experiences in the war in Baghdad.
The author, Dennis Shepherd, a retired lieutenant colonel, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, was working with Cassedy’s sister, Heather, at the attorney general’s office in 2003 when she began receiving E-mails from Sean about his war experiences, Shepherd said.
“We were following Sean as we followed the news on TV about the march to Baghdad,” he said.
Sean was part of the 3-week campaign to the Tip of the Spear, in the spring of 2003, to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which ended with U.S. forces helping Iraqi nationals overturn a large statue of Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square as the world watched on television.
The idea of writing a book on Cassedy’s experiences occurred to Shepherd when Cassedy came home following an incident in which he was badly wounded and several of his friends were killed.
“I was driving to work one day, and I heard about a returning veteran who hadn’t participated in combat and how the homecoming was going to be in a Kentucky town, and I thought, ‘We have a wonderful story about Sean coming home’ and that’s when I asked Heather to ask her family if I could write his story,” he said.
Returning Son, published in 2004, included details not only of Cassedy’s story but those of his father’s anguish at being treated so shabbily by the public when he returned home from Vietnam.
Shepherd uses Sean’s E-mails and exerts from a journal he kept daily until the day his unit was hit, about two weeks into the march, and his legs were crushed and his best friend died on top of him. Shepherd even includes some photographs that Sean had taken with a disposable camera.
“I included all of his E-mails; that’s one whole chapter in my book,” Shepherd said.
Cassedy’s wounds healed sufficiently for him to return to active duty for two more tours, one in Baghdad and another in Afghanistan.
A need to help
Sean’s parents, with the help of officials at Chase Bank, have established a trust fund called the Sean Cassedy Memorial Trust Fund, which will be used not only for Cassedy’s funeral expenses but to help veterans returning from active duty re-establish themselves in society, Lin Cassedy said.
“We’re going to serve those who served,” he said. “The fund was set up so we can serve veterans who have these problems [PTSS]. We want to help them out in every way we can. I don’t ever want to see anything like this [Sean’s suicide] again, not if I can help it.”
Carol Cassedy, who is a psychiatric nurse, said she thinks that helping veterans to overcome PTSS is what gives her and her husband purpose.
“I want to find better ways for treating people with these disorders,” she said. “This is a way for us to do that.”
Cassedy said she and her family never will forget the kindness that people in the community showed to them when her son died.
“I want to say thank you to all the people who came last week to just be with us and to console us,” she said. “It seemed like there were hundreds of people, and no one will ever know how comforting that was to us, because, for me, it was so upsetting to me to see my other children grieving for their brother. That was the worse thing of all, it just about ripped my heart out.
“We’ve been telling people, ‘Please, just pray for us.’ And I want everyone to remember, life is short. Be sure to never miss an opportunity to tell people that you love how much you appreciate them because you never know when you’ll lose that chance.”