Law alumna draws on personal loss to help prevent veteran suicide

By Janet Waldman, MS '09 February 14, 2022

Carolyn Colley JD '13 poses with her family after graduation

After the devastating loss of her brothers, Carolyn Colley, JD '13, devoted her career to working with veterans to access the mental health benefits they need. Like her brothers, Colley is a veteran who served her country in the U.S. Air Force.

When her kid brother took his life in 2007, Carolyn Colley, JD ’13, was devastated.

U.S. Army Pfc. Stephen E. Colley had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder that would persist despite his attempts to get help. Ten years later, Colley would experience heartbreak once more when her older brother, Alan E. Colley, a former Army Reserves major and lawyer like herself, used a firearm to end his life.

“To lose two is an indescribable kind of pain — it crushes you to the core of your being and carries with it a whirlwind of confusion. It is agonizing and unrelenting,” she stated in a website post for people grieving the deaths of veterans and others close to them.

Colley, who lives outside Houston, Texas, has devoted her career since law school to working with veterans who need help navigating the often-complicated system to access mental health benefits. Like her brothers, Colley is a veteran who served her country in the U.S. Air Force.

Last year, she accepted a position as an action officer with PREVENTS, an acronym for the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide task force housed within the Veterans Administration’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

In 2019, there were 6,261 veteran suicide deaths in the U.S., 399 fewer than in 2018, according to a VA report. That same year, the veteran suicide rate was 31.6 per 100,000, substantially higher than the rate among non-veteran U.S. adults (16.8 per 100,000).

The task force was established by executive order in March 2019 to change the culture surrounding mental health and suicide prevention. One of its goals is to develop the first federally coordinated national public health strategy to empower veterans and address suicide nationally.

That goal is close to Colley’s heart and her soul — to help veterans like her brothers find the help they need without feeling stigmatized or jeopardized when seeking it.

Unbelievably, tragedy struck the family again last June when a third brother, Matthew, also chose to end his life. Her new job now seemed more relevant than ever.

From Russia to Texas

Colley’s father, a retired Army captain, moved his family around the country as his military career evolved. He retired in California where Colley attended high school. After graduation, she followed her family into the military, choosing the Air Force, where she served in California and Texas as a Russian linguist. Upon leaving the Air Force, she attended UC Davis to earn a degree in Russian studies.

“I always had an interest in languages, and I already spoke German and French, so Russian felt like the next great challenge to take on,” Colley said.

And where better to practice it than in Russia, where she taught English at a private school in St. Petersburg — “the best city on the planet.”

Her next chapter was law school. She enrolled at the Quinnipiac School of Law at the same time her brother, Alan, began law school nearby at the University of Connecticut. They supported each other through three years of hard work. He ultimately transferred to the University of Michigan Law School and skipped his own graduation to escort his graduating sister across the Quinnipiac stage so their family wouldn’t have to choose between same-day ceremonies. “It was the single most special event in my life, and one I will never forget,” Colley said.

While in law school, she did several externships, including one at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and another in Los Angeles working with veterans. “Professor Carrie Kaas made it possible for me to participate in the LA internship my second year. Without her, I don’t think I’d be where I am today,” she said.

After graduation, Colley worked in human resources for the U.S. Navy, but she yearned for a job that would allow her to work directly with veterans. She found one within the military and veterans unit at Lone Star Legal Aid in Texas.

“I did everything from helping with housing to benefits and job termination issues. I loved that work, and that led me to my next job as an attorney adviser with the Board of Veterans Appeals with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, handling disability cases,” she said.

Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially if a veteran is disabled. “It can be a very time-consuming process, with lots of rules and regulations, and sometimes a veteran can wait 10 years for a claim to be settled … it can be overwhelming, and people give up,” she said.

Some of her more rewarding cases have involved helping dishonorably discharged veterans understand what benefits they still might be able to obtain. “Or we would help them work to change what are known as ‘bad papers’ so they could get benefits.” Her mediation skills from law school came into play with this position.

Colley said one of the first such cases she handled was for a veteran who smoked marijuana in his last week of service as he dealt with PTSD from combat. He received a dishonorable discharge, despite his Purple Heart decoration. “We were able to upgrade his discharge so he could receive the medical care and financial assistance he needed to lead a productive and fulfilling life,” she said.

“Sometimes a veteran would say, ‘I’m hurt, but not as bad as the other guy. I’ve still got both my legs, and I don’t want to take money away from others.’ They don’t understand that’s not how it works,” Colley said, explaining how she helps veterans understand the system and availability of benefits.

A Calling More Than a Job

Colley accepted the VA job just days before Alan died. She had second thoughts about staying in that field, but her father convinced her that it was perhaps exactly where she needed to be at the time. Looking back, she is happy to say her father was right, and she is glad she stuck with it.

“Alan was the older brother. He was supposed to be strong, and he didn’t realize how much Stephen’s death affected him,” she said. Although Alan sought help for his mental health struggles, Colley said it wasn’t enough in the end. She lives near his children and is happy to watch them grow up.

Part of her job duties while on special assignment with PREVENTS is providing educational tools to families and caregivers of veterans. She also hammers out memorandums of agreements with various organizations and ensures that Office of General Counsel guidelines are followed. In this position, she uses her law degree in a nontraditional way.

“My passion is suicide prevention, and more so since losing my third brother, who was not a veteran.” She explained that Matthew sought help for mental health issues for more than 15 years but ultimately felt it was like “putting a Band-Aid on a problem that would never be solved,” she said, adding that he believed in his right to die and purchased sedatives outside the country as a means to that end.

She volunteers with TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) as a group facilitator and peer mentor, trying to help people understand why loved ones would die by suicide.

“We understand each other in a way that other people can’t. As tough as it is, this work calls to me, and I feel compelled to do it,” she said, noting that some days if she’s honest with herself, she wonders whether she’s been able to do any good.

“I have experienced the worst and most terrible thing I can ever imagine, times three, but I think you have to find a way to push through, power through. For me, it’s trying to use my experience and what I’ve gone through and use it for good."

Relaxation for Colley ironically comes in the form of endurance hikes, and she has traveled to France, Belgium and all over the United States to hike in cold, heat and floods.

Peering into the future, she would love to work at a clinic for veterans someday, perhaps in a law school setting. “It would be incredibly rewarding to teach others what I know,” she said.

“Carrie Kaas taught us that practicing law doesn’t just mean going to court and litigating cases. And Jen Brown [now dean] emphasized the human side of law in her class, looking past what a client says to how they actually feel, and how that can impact your case,” Colley said. “It’s not just about the law and how you’re going to win. It’s about finding out who the person is sitting across from you and how can you help them.”

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