In the early hours of Memorial Day, 26-year-old Drew Winkler quietly walked through the family house, passing the bedroom where his two sons slept soundly. As he traversed the living room where his father slept soundly on the sofa, he walked intently into the house office, securing a firearm before heading outside.
Getting in his car, he sent some last-minute text messages and posted a Facebook status update before embarking on his journey.
Drew Winkler took a one-way trip- his car never leaving the driveway. His family and friends later awoke to his final message, posted on Facebook: “1 of 22 [veterans] per day … [why] can’t they just help us … goodbye.”
According to the NWF Daily News, this is not how his parents want the story to end. They want you to know, too.
As a high schooler, Drew was simultaneously enrolled at Northwest Florida Community College. His family considered him quite intelligent and “philosophical.”
“He was very smart- probably the smartest one in the family,” his mother, Rebecca said. “He was a social butterfly. Before he left to join the Air Force, he was always positive, always happy.”
Assigned to Aviano, Italy after completing basic training, he volunteered for a tour in Iraq.
While not much is documented on what happened to Drew while he was in Iraq, his family says he returned a different man.
“My son who left for Italy never came back to me,” Rebecca said, her eyes filling with tears. “The person who came back looked like my son and talked like my son, but it wasn’t my Drew. The light had gone out of him.”
In 2011, Drew was diagnosed with PTSD and discharged from the Air Force.
After returning home, Drew shocked even the VA with the high dosages of medication the military had him on. Struggling to adjust, he applied for disability benefits, only to be rejected twice- with the VA saying that he did not meet their criteria for PTSD.
Suddenly, Drew began to suffer seizures, which doctors felt were stress-induced. Despite getting work at a call center, the side effects of his medication hurt his work performance.
“He would sit under his desk at work and take calls in the dark,” recalled Drew’s younger brother, Craig, who works at the same center. “He struggled so hard.”
Drew fell in love with a single mother of an infant son around 2014 and fathered a child of his own with the same woman. Deeply in love with her and the boys, he was allowed joint custody of both after they split later on.
“Those boys were his whole life,” Rebecca said. “Both of them. He wanted to be the perfect father. So I have to ask, how much pain does a father have to be in to leave his boys behind?”
Drew’s mother expressed frustration with the healthcare system that was designed to help veterans, yet constantly seems to fall short.
“Once, when he was coming out of a seizure, he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’m broken. Why can’t they just fix me?’ ” Rebecca said. “The system is broken.”
“I’ll be honest,” sobbed retired Airman and Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Winkler, Drew’s father. “I used to think suicide was the coward’s way out. But my son was not a coward. He was a warrior. He fought and battled this for five years.”
Drew did fight. To the bitter end, Drew fought a losing battle, seemingly without support from the organizations that placed him in those situations and promised to help him when he got out. In one of his last texts to his mother, Drew said he was fighting the demons in his head every day, and that he was losing.
“They won, and my sweet, sweet boy lost,” Rebecca said with a sob. “And his two little boys lost, too.”
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