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Iraq, Afghan war veteran who epitomized recovery kills self

By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press / April 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Handsome and friendly, Clay Hunt so epitomized a vibrant Iraq veteran that he was chosen for a public service announcement reminding veterans that they are not alone.

The 28-year-old former Marine corporal received a Purple Heart after taking a sniper’s bullet in his left wrist. He returned to combat in Afghanistan. Upon his return home, he lobbied for veterans on Capitol Hill, road-biked with wounded veterans, and performed humanitarian work in Haiti and Chile.

Then, on March 31, Hunt bolted himself in his Houston apartment and shot himself.

Friends and family said he was wracked with survivor’s guilt, depression, and other emotional struggles after combat.

Hunt’s death has shaken many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who knew him wonder why someone who seemed to be doing all the right things to deal with combat-related issues is now dead.

“We know we have a problem with vets’ suicide, but this was really a slap in the face,’’ said Matthew Pelak, 32, an Iraq veteran who worked with Hunt in Haiti as part of the nonprofit group Team Rubicon.

After news of Hunt’s death spread, workers from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors met with veterans visiting Washington for the annual lobbying effort by the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group. A year earlier, Hunt had been calling on Congress to improve the disability claims process.

He had appeared in the group’s ads encouraging veterans to seek support from an online network of fellow veterans.

Snapshots posted on Facebook reflect a mostly grinning Hunt. In one, he has a beard and is surrounded by Haitian kids. A second shows him on the Capitol steps with fellow veterans.

Friends said Hunt suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress. But with his boundless energy and many friends, he came across as an example of how to live after combat.

“I think everybody saw him as the guy that was battling it, but winning the battle every day,’’ said Jacob Wood, 27, who served with Hunt.

“He was very despondent about why he was alive and so many people he served with directly were not alive,’’ said John Wordin, 48, the founder of Ride 2 Recovery, a program that uses bicycling to help veterans heal.