USA Cares

Tonya Noland*

Tonya will never forget the night of Jan. 30, 2024.


“We actually were having a great night,” Tonya remembered of her dinner date with her husband, Justin. “The kids were with my parents and we went to a Mexican restaurant.”


But things quickly turned sour.


“We just kind of got into an argument on the way home in the car and, when we came in the house, he went upstairs by himself,” Tonya said. “I can’t even remember what the argument was about, something small.”

Despite its relatively small significance, the argument continued at home.


“It was a yelling, fighting type of argument,” Tonya said. “He came downstairs with our gun in his hand and it scared me.”


Unharmed, Tonya left Justin at their house to go spend the night at her parents’ home. She planned to return the next morning with the kids once things calmed down.


“It was about 10 o’clock and everyone was asleep when I got there,” Tonya said. “So, I turned my phone on silent and fell asleep on the couch.”


The next thing she remembers is being jostled awake by Justin’s sister, Debbie, just a few hours later. She frantically told Tonya to get up. Justin had shot himself while on FaceTime with Debbie and first responders were on their way to the Nolands’ home. The pair rushed to the house.


“When we got there, I saw that he had barricaded the house with the wood and metal he had been using to help our son with a school project,” Tonya said. “(The first responders) had to break in to get to him.”


Everyone assumed Justin was likely dead but, while checking his vitals, paramedics discovered he was still gasping for air.


“They told us we needed to go to the hospital, so we did,” Tonya said.


While doctors rushed to save Justin, Tonya learned more about the moments leading up to his suicide attempt. After trying unsuccessfully to reach his wife while she slept, Justin called both his mother and Tonya’s grandmother.


“At first, he was really sad,” Tonya said. “Then he’d call them back really angry. He was like manic, like he was just yelling and saying things that didn’t even make sense to them.”


Sadly, Justin had been struggling with suicidal ideation for years.


“There were close calls before,” Tonya said. “One time he had called his mom while he was at the house alone. This was probably about a year and a half ago, two years ago maybe. She had to come over with his brother-in-law. They saw he had written notes, but he didn’t go through with anything.”


For years, Justin struggled with severe depression. At the time of his suicide attempt, he was working with the VA to address his service-related PTSD, but Tonya admits he wasn’t patient and had become frustrated after repeated denials from the agency.


“He would go from 0 to 100 in an instant,” Tonya said. “Little things would set him off, so you always felt like you were walking on eggshells when he was in these depressive episodes.”


It wasn’t the Justin Tonya remembered meeting back in 2002.


“We were really good friends in high school,” Tonya said. “Right after that, he went into the military.”


Justin enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2005 and was deployed twice to Iraq before leaving the service in 2008.


“The first time, he was there for about 9 months,” Tonya said. “I don’t remember exactly what his job title was, but he basically set up the communication systems they used out there.”


Tonya and Justin reconnected in 2009. They started dating and, in 2010, the couple welcomed their first child, a son. They married in 2015 and had their daughter the following year.


To outsiders, the Nolands appeared to be the perfect family, but those close to them knew Justin was struggling with his mental health.


“He tried to get help,” Tonya said. “He would go to doctors and do counseling and try different medicines on and off. He kind of felt like he’d be better sometimes, and then he wouldn’t go for quite a long time, and he’d be bad again.”


Justin was in one of those downwards spirals that night in late January. While doctors had been able to stabilize Justin, his diagnosis was grim.


“After a traumatic injury in your brain, there’s a lot of swelling that it goes through,” Tonya said. “The doctors’ plan was to ween him off of sedation to see what functions would be there.”


Unfortunately, after ten days in the ICU, doctors couldn’t find function in Justin’s brain. He remained at the hospital for nearly two more weeks before Tonya and his family decided to bring him home on hospice.


Three days later, on Feb. 24, 2024, Justin succumbed to his injuries. He was just 37 years old.


“There are just so many would-have, could-have, should-haves,” Tonya said. “I have regret and guilt about that decision. I just hope I made the right one.”


Before Justin’s death, Tonya’s trauma was compounded by new issues. Mainly, how would she support herself and the children with no income? Justin was the primary provider while Tonya went to dental school.


“While we were still in the hospital with (Justin), my brother-in-law was trying to find resources to help us pay the bills,” Tonya said. “He was searching the internet when he found USA Cares.”


With approval of her case, USA Cares helped pay the Nolands’ phone and utility bills and provided gift cards for groceries.


“It’s nice to know there are resources out there for people in situations like ours,” Tonya said. “It took a part of the load off while we try to figure out this, you know, grievance period.”


When asked to describe her late husband, Tonya smiled.


“He was an amazing person, an amazing husband, an amazing dad,” Tonya said. “I hate how he went. I don’t want people to judge him off his final decision. Mental illness is real, it’s serious, and it’s a forever thing. I want people to learn from his story.”


*all names have been changed