Setting things right

By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer

The dream is the same, every time.

Scott Sargent's truck rolls down a darkened highway.

In an instant, a figure appears in the road before him. A young man with his face turned away from the truck, backpack on his shoulder.

The truck can't swerve fast enough. As it hits the young man's body, Scott sees the pedestrian's head turn and lock eyes.

It's his son, Brandon.

"The instant I hit him in the dream, I'd wake up screaming with terrible chest pains," says Scott, an OOIDA life member from Sheboygan, Wis.

Suicide by truck – the nightmare of many professional truck drivers – became a grievous chapter in Scott's life on Nov. 16, 2013. While Scott wasn't the driver, he instantly felt a connection with the trucker behind the wheel on that dark and cold November morning.

During the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 29-year-old Brandon stood at the centerline of a highway overpass in Abbotsford, Wis. Earbuds in, he allowed a tanker truck heading down Wisconsin State Highway 29 no other option but to hit him.

The fact that Brandon chose both to end his life and to end it with a truck struck Scott to the core.

"My son did not give that driver an out," Scott said. "My son deliberately put him in that situation so that he had no out."

After grieving, Scott ignored legal advice and reached out to the driver involved in Brandon's wreck.

"It's unfortunate that with suicide, people think this will end all the pain," Scott says. "But all it does is reallocate pain. It goes to the survivors and the family members."

Before he could heal, Scott knew he had to connect with the man behind the wheel that night.

Brandon Sargent grew up in Wisconsin, where he enjoyed the outdoors and spent many hours fishing, Scott said. He lived mostly with his mother after she and Scott divorced in 2002.

Scott said his separation with his ex-wife wasn't amicable. Communication between father and son was difficult, and he admits he regrets not understanding the severity of Brandon's mental health issues.

As a young adult, Brandon became involved with drugs. He attempted suicide twice before, Scott said, including one occasion when Brandon drove Scott's car off a breakwater into Lake Michigan.

Car wrecks and run-ins with the law weren't uncommon.

Earlier in 2013, seeking a fresh start, Brandon moved to north-central Wisconsin with his aunt and uncle. He could live rent free and hone carpentry skills. There was a third benefit as well.

A young woman who lived nearby might be a good match, Scott's sister-in-law had told Brandon. The woman had small children – allowing Brandon the chance to realize a dream of being a husband and father.

Scott and his wife, Linda, had offered Brandon a similar arrangement at their west Wisconsin home, "but our offer didn't come with a girlfriend," Scott said.

Things went well at first, Scott said. Brandon worked skilled trade jobs. A hip injury led to surgery and time off work. Before long, substance abuse was back in Brandon's life.

Brandon's girlfriend asked him to move out.

On Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, Scott had completed a long day behind the wheel to get home for the first night all week. He shut his phone off and went to sleep.

The next morning, Scott awoke and turned on his phone. A text message from Brandon buzzed in from the night before was sent to Scott and Brandon's sister, Cassie.

"I'm sorry about this. I'm tired of being the family f--- up. Love you all. Goodbye."

Scott called Brandon's phone but only got voice mail. Cassie told Scott she too had been calling but couldn't reach Brandon.

Eventually, Scott tracked down an emergency room doctor with a patient who had been hit by a truck early that morning. The doctor asked Scott to describe his son's distinguishing features.

"I told him, 'he's got a dragon tattoo on his right arm and he's about 6 feet tall,'" Scott said.

Scott was told to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

WAOW-TV covered the wreck that weekend.

Brandon S. Sargent was hit at 4:10 a.m. Saturday on eastbound state Highway 29 at Hiline Avenue near Abbotsford, Lt. Fred Goch said.

Scott and Linda drove the three-and-a-half hours to Marshfield, Wis. An intensive care unit doctor told them Brandon had no pain response. Surgeons had repaired internal damage as best they could and had given him 14 units of blood to keep him alive.

Brandon had suffered a shattered pelvis. One leg was broken in eight places. Doctors believed he was brain dead.

"He had no pupil response," Scott said. "He was losing blood as fast as they were putting it in him."

Scott was left with a parent's toughest decision. After calling Brandon's mother, he decided to have doctors turn off the respirator machine that had sustained Brandon.

Scott's voice grows louder as he recounted the moment. His voice quivers.

"It was the worst minute of my life," he said. "Because that was all the longer it took. … I was in the hospital to see him take his first breath. And I'm the only one that saw him take his last."

Brandon's eyes seemed empty and nearly haunting, Scott said. He leaned over and kissed Brandon's forehead. Then he broke down in tears.

The local TV station quietly followed up on the 29-year-old's death.

Sargent died later at a Marshfield hospital.

It remains under investigation as to why Sargent was a pedestrian on the highway at that hour or exactly where he was when he was hit, Goch said.

Statistics on suicide by truck are spotty. Unless those involved in a roadside death leave notes to loved ones, investigations frequently cite the deaths as accidents.

Nationally, suicides are increasing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicides in America totaled 41,149 in 2013. That's up from 40,600 in 2012 and 39,518 in 2011.

Like many loved ones of suicide victims, Scott anguished over his son's death. He felt stung particularly by the method in which Brandon had ended his life.

"We'd had a falling out," Scott said. "Because of that, I always thought his choice of suicide by truck was kind of the ultimate 'f--- you, Dad.'"

Scott came into trucking in 2000. One important message hammered home during school was "always leave yourself an out."

"You try not to be put in a situation where you don't have some way to react to that situation," Scott said.

The way Brandon ended his life bothers Scott because the trucker was left without an option.

Brandon will forever hold a special place in his father's heart. But Scott believed the events that night shouldn't mar any driver's life.

Buck Black is a licensed therapist based in Lafayette, Ind. He's known to many professional drivers as the voice behind @TruckerTherapy on Twitter, as well as a Land Line columnist.

While death by truck may seem relatively rare, Buck said suicide in general is not something anyone can guard against.

Buck said truck drivers should focus on controlling the things they can control.

"Remember that as a professional driver you are doing things correctly and you cannot control other people's reactions," Black said. "There is no way to fully prepare for such an incident. My advice is to be as aware and proactive as possible in regards to safe driving."

While Scott was initially hurt by the way Brandon ended his life, Buck cautioned against reading into such tragic circumstances.

"It's not personal against the trucker," Black said. "People in these situations don't say, 'I want to ruin that driver's life.' They think of the truck as a means to an end. Often, suicidal people are not thinking about others."

Three days after Brandon's death, Scott and Linda returned home to Sheboygan, where a letter awaited them.

A local lawyer had picked up on Brandon's death and offered an opportunity: He believed Brandon's family had a good case for suing the motor carrier involved in the wreck.

"We hadn't even had time to set up his funeral and already the vultures were circling," Scott said.

Spurning the lawyer's offer, Scott did, however, have one connection he would make.

A policeman investigating Brandon's death had spoken to the other truck driver and received permission to give his phone number to Scott – though attorneys for the other driver's company discouraged the pair from speaking.

Two weeks later, Scott picked up his phone and dialed. The other driver answered.

Scott said the wreck originally had the other driver "pretty shook up."

The driver's company set up a counselor to treat him for post-traumatic stress disorder. Learning that the wreck was intentional was somewhat comforting, he told Scott.

Scott told the driver that he too was a driver.

"I know the whole situation had to be weighing heavily on your mind," Scott said. "I wanted you to know that this was a suicide. It was apparently part of a fairly well thought-out plan. And I'm not holding you personally responsible."

Scott asked if Brandon had stepped out in front of the truck.

No, the driver said. Brandon's shadow first appeared as the tanker neared the overpass.

"I tried to go left, but there was a concrete barrier on each side of the overpass," Scott recounted him saying. "I had nowhere I could go."

The conversation was relatively pleasant, given the circumstances. Before hanging up, the driver thanked Scott for the call.

"I understand you didn't have to reach out," he told Scott.

Scott's dream sequence occurred often the first year after Brandon's death. He couldn't seem to shake the image of a young man standing directly in front of his truck.

One night at an Indiana weigh station off of Interstate 94, another driver rushed to his truck after hearing Scott screaming from another nightmare.

"They thought I was being attacked because of my yelling," he said.

Aside from Brandon's funeral, he took little time off from working. Instead, Scott made it a point to have conversations with his family and with friends as he worked through his grieving.

Working helped.

"I wasn't going to let what happened stop 14 years and almost 1.7 million miles of accident-free driving," Scott said. "I wouldn't let that stop me from continuing the career I chose."

Black said the method of coping with suicide or death depends on the individual.

"Simply put, if a driver seems to need additional help, then counseling and support groups are helpful," Black said. "It's also advisable for drivers to have some home time after such an incident."

Scott knows the pain from Brandon's death won't ever completely heal.

Some nights, Scott tunes into Sirius XM's '70s on Channel 7. Sometimes the channel plays "Vincent," by Don McLean, and one line will prompt him to pull his truck over as he thinks about his boy.

"And when no hope was left in sight, on that starry, starry night. You took your life as lovers often do."

Though Brandon endured darkness in his life, Scott chooses to think of the good times. Shifting back into gear, Scott sees his son smiling.

It's a choice he'll make every time. LL