Sgt. Anthony Muhlstadt was pumped when he first arrived at Twentynine Palms, California. The 23-year-old Marine thought he had arrived among the "badasses of the world," according to his mother.
But that excitement faded last year as his relationships with his fellow Marines soured, turning into skirmishes. One night, he was jumped in the barracks because he helped a junior Marine clean up a room trashed by two other Marines, his mother Tanya Mort told Military.com.
"There was some bullying. I hate using that word, he was in the Marine Corps," Mort said. "I hate using that word, but that's really what it was."
Read Next: 'Top Gun' Boosted Recruiting and Brought the Tailhook Scandal. So What Happens After the Blockbuster Sequel?
Muhlstadt struggled with life in the barracks and eventually sought help on base for his depression. After more than two months of medication, the doctor he'd been seeing at Twentynine Palms reported progress in November and boosted his antidepressant prescription.
But the doctor and Marine Corps didn't know Muhlstadt had a gun he had bought weeks before at the Marine Corps Exchange store, or MCX, at Twentynine Palms. He had hidden it, like many Marines, in his barracks instead of checking the weapon into the armory as required.
Muhlstadt used the gun to take his own life on Nov. 19, two days after his checkup with the doctor. That day, he had gone shopping, even buying a trigger lock with plans of hiding the gun with a friend while out of town. To his mother, his death seemed extremely impulsive -- only possible because of her son's ready access to a firearm -- and pointed to a glaring loophole for those at risk of suicide.
"If somebody's going to buy a weapon at the MCX on base, why isn't there communication? Why can't the MCX shoot an email to the armory, shoot an email to the command?" Mort said. "Or for the MCX, say, 'You know what? OK, Muhlstadt, I'm going to shoot this over to the armory. We're going to deliver it to the armory, and you'll pick it up from there."
Muhlstadt's gun purchase was one of 113,200 firearms sales last year at stores on military bases, according to figures provided by the exchange services. The Army and Air Force have 81 store counters that sell guns at bases nationwide. The Marine Corps has 11 MCX sites, including the store at Twentynine Palms, that sell firearms.
Most service member suicides are tied to a personal firearm, according to the Pentagon's latest annual suicide report. And having guns immediately at hand is often a key factor in suicides, the Pentagon said, based on decades of research.
That's because suicide is often a sudden decision, as a 2018 Rand Corp. study concluded.
"Suicide attempts are impulsive acts that may never be repeated if the first attempt fails," the study found. "Because those who impulsively attempt suicide with a gun rarely get a chance to reconsider the decision, it is reasonable to suspect that when guns are less available, fewer suicide attempts will result in fatality."
Personal guns aren't allowed in barracks, but right now there's no requirement that base stores tell commanders when troops who live on base buy guns -- or that commands let those stores know if troops have been deemed a suicide risk ahead of a purchase.
Even as the military searches for ways to ease a years-long epidemic of suicides, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin creating an independent commission of suicide experts who are mulling policies to reduce the number of troops who kill themselves, little has changed in terms of gun purchasing, with Congress blocking attempts to curb gun access to at-risk troops.
Free offers of gun safes and trigger locks have served as the primary policy pushes to date.
"I would hope that, if there are going to be sales on military bases, that there's safe storage, training and some kind of basic education geared specifically toward active military," said Nick Wilson, the senior director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress think tank.
Mort and other family members of those who have taken their own lives in barracks are pushing for more to be done.
After a command investigation of Muhlstadt's suicide, the 7th Marine Regiment at Twentynine Palms recommended his unit create a notification system for when a Marine living in the barracks buys a gun at the exchange store to ensure it is properly stored, according to an April letter obtained by Military.com. It's unclear whether the unit followed through on that recommendation, and there are no indications that similar initiatives are underway elsewhere in the military.
For troops, even those at risk for suicide, access to guns on base is mostly unfettered. Exchange purchases are a major source of firearms in the military community, and have been for decades.
Buyers are required to fill out a firearms transaction record with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as any paperwork required by state or local laws. But exchange stores do not contact a service member's chain of command when they buy a gun.
"Some installations require service members to register firearms within 24 hours of purchase," Chris Ward, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, wrote in an email to Military.com. "This process is not specific to military exchange purchases."
The Army and Marine Corps said they require troops to register personal guns with the Provost Marshal's Office on base, which oversees military police on any given facility but is unlikely to know about the mental health of individual service members.
"Service members living in the barracks are required to store their privately-owned firearms in the unit or installation armory," Capt. Ryan Bruce, Marine Corps spokesperson, said in a statement to Military.com. "All privately-owned firearms stored on base are required to be fitted with a trigger lock and stored unloaded in a locked, fully encased container."
The services also conduct what are called health and welfare inspections in the barracks, partly as a way to ensure troops are following the rules and keeping personal guns in the armory as required.
Still, Muhlstadt was able to hide the gun in the barracks for weeks after buying it at the exchange. Mort said Marines who served with her son told her it was easy to avoid the barracks inspections, and guns could be simply moved off-base temporarily.
It's unclear how many other service members have taken their lives with weapons purchased at base exchange stores, let alone how many of those were living in barracks and might have been helped by the notification measures suggested by Mort. That's mostly because the military doesn't release those statistics.
The Marine Corps, a relatively small branch, did provide a snapshot of suicide statistics for 2019, which it said is the most recent publicly released data on the question. There were 15 suicides in barracks or shared spaces, and four of those involved a personal firearm, it said. The other military services did not provide data on the suicides and referred questions to the Pentagon's annual suicide report.
"Suicide is a tragedy and we remain focused on preventing it. We cannot yet say that we fully understand the complexities involved," Bruce, the Marine Corps spokesman, said in his statement. "We continue to learn, study, and implement prevention and response measures."
Bruce said the Marine Corps Death by Suicide Review Board looks into each suicide, and if it finds evidence that suggests links or causes, it can make recommendations to service leadership.
'She Took the Gun Back to the Barracks'
Suicide, along with sexual assault, has become one of the hardest problems the military faces. The deaths among active-duty troops increased 44% from 2015 to 2020. Despite years of new policies and spending both from the Defense Department and Congress, suicides do not appear to be subsiding.
In Alaska, at least 11 troops committed suicide over the past year -- a number that alarmed the military and lawmakers. As the Army seeks a larger role in the Arctic, the frigid and remote environment of Alaska may be fueling the suicide epidemic.
The availability of guns on base may also make suicide an easier option for some in Alaska.
Spc. Kaylie Harris suffered trauma upon trauma during her assignment as a military police officer at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, according to her mother Carey Harris-Stickford.
Harris had just come out as gay in January 2021. Just days later, she was playing video games and drinking with a fellow service member. Harris became incapacitated and was raped, her mother said.
She went to a hospital emergency room for medical treatment and reported her assault, first in a restricted and then an unrestricted report, which allows commands and law enforcement to be notified. Harris started counseling through the military.
But the trauma of the rape persisted. Harris struggled at a training event and was found to have thoughts of suicide, Harris-Stickford said. She was placed under "do not arm" orders that barred her from using a service weapon.
"She broke off contact with most of her family, and I knew something was wrong," Harris-Stickford said. "We would FaceTime all the time, like two or three times a week, and then all of a sudden she couldn't FaceTime anymore and she said she got switched shifts."
Harris-Stickford tried raising the alarm through repeated phone calls with the base and to get somebody to check on her daughter, but was unsuccessful. A subsequent move by the Army and Air Force served as an additional trauma for Harris.
"They put her in a training building -- at the exact same building was the man who raped her because they removed him from his duty and put him in there for administration duties," her mother said. "So, she ran into him in the hallway."
"She called her special victims advocate. I guess she had an extremely emotional response; [that] is what their exact wording was," Harris-Stickford said.
A few days later, on a Friday, Harris had an evaluation over a Zoom call and was removed from the "do not arm" list, according to her mother. On Sunday, May 2, 2021, she went to the base exchange store with a fellow military police officer and bought a gun.
The friend suggested that Harris register the gun and put it in the armory. "She said, 'Oh no, I'm tired. I'm gonna go back and take a nap,'" Harris-Stickford said.
"Then, of course, she took the gun back to the barracks. Supposedly, she printed out a typed letter," her mother said. "And then she left, and she took her own life in her vehicle."
The Defense Department itself has ensured service members have easy access to firearms through the exchange store activities, which provide more than 113,000 personal guns per year to the military community.
Service members, like all Americans, have a constitutional right to own guns, and most personal gun owners who live on base reported responsibly storing their firearms, according to a first-ever department survey on gun attitudes and suicide that was folded into the annual suicide report.
Still, many others who live on base and have personal firearms do not follow storage and safety practices that reduce suicide risk, the survey found. About 20% of those troops said they always or frequently kept their guns loaded, and 28% said they kept ammunition with their firearms -- two factors that could increase the risk of suicide.
The common factor in the suicides of Muhlstadt and Harris was access. Both bought guns at exchange stores, and both broke rules designed to keep them safe.
'Red Flag' Laws and Gun Safes
The access to guns at exchange stores mirrors the wider society outside the base gates, where most Americans are free to purchase guns and firearms stores are numerous. Many troops could simply leave base to buy a personal gun, if they wanted. Guns also play a key role in suicide deaths throughout the country.
Any efforts by lawmakers to curb access to guns, either on military bases or in the civilian world, have typically fizzled or met stiff resistance despite raucous public debates following mass shootings, such as the massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas.
In June, after decades of inaction, Congress passed gun legislation that partly encourages states to impose extreme risk protection orders, also known as "red flag" laws. The protective orders can take away a person's guns and bar them from purchasing firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
But lawmakers have rejected proposals to allow military judges to issue protective orders that would temporarily take away a service member's guns if there was risk of suicide or domestic violence.
Over the past two years, red-flag legislation has been stripped from the annual must-pass defense authorization bill. Nearly 160 House Republicans opposed the measure last fall, saying it could violate troops' constitutional rights.
"This bill is supposed to be about funding our military and supporting our troops, not stripping law-abiding military members of their Second Amendment rights without so much as a hearing," Rep. Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, said in a December statement. "I'm glad we were able to get this poison pill stripped from this extremely important legislation."
Instead, the military has recently focused on safe storage, such as gun locks or safes, as a way to reduce its stubbornly high suicide rates. Defense Secretary Austin believes safe storage is a key factor when it comes to suicides, his spokesman said earlier this year.
The Air Force, for example, started giving away cable locks in 2019; last year, its bases in the U.S. ordered 71,100 of them.
"Putting time and distance between thoughts of self-harm and access to lethal means by using safes, locks or outside storage of lethal means can be successful in stopping an attempted suicide," Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman, wrote in an email to Military.com.
Locks and safes prevent anyone without a key from firing a gun. In May, the Defense Department announced troops could ship gun safes to duty stations without it counting toward their household goods weight allowances. The House is proposing a pilot program that would give free gun locks and safes to troops who volunteer.
The latest push for safe storage comes after years of other efforts and programs -- none of which seem to significantly reduce suicides, according to the military's published statistics.
In March, Austin announced the creation of the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee as an effort to finally get the department's arms around the problem. Dr. Gayle Iwamasa of the Department of Veterans Affairs was tapped to lead a team that includes an "expert on sexual assault and suicide, an epidemiologist, an expert on substance abuse, retired military personnel, a public health expert and a retired military chaplain."
Iwamasa and her experts were scheduled to begin touring bases this month, and are expected to eventually give Austin fresh recommendations to combat suicide.
For Mort, the mother of Sgt. Muhlstadt, at least one of the solutions is simple: Have exchange stores pick up a phone and notify commands when a service member buys a gun.
That could have enabled Muhlstadt's command to order his gun to the armory, and Mort believes it could have potentially saved his life.
"I'm not looking to place blame on everybody, that's not what I'm looking to do. I'm looking to hopefully make it harder for someone else in the future, to where if they had to go to the armory, they have those few extra minutes to think through this," she said. "Because in my son's case, it was extremely impulsive."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.
Related: Few Details from Pentagon, VA After White House Unveils Suicide Prevention Plan Focused on Gun Safety