When the chain-link gate slid open on a military airfield in Virginia Beach, Va., spouses stood waiting for their husbands after yet another grueling deployment. Still clad in their camouflage uniforms, operators with SEAL Team 6 were reunited with their wives that night in the summer of 2009. Sydney Mulder came forward to embrace her husband, Bill, but immediately saw that something was wrong.
“I’ll never forget it. He physically looked different. Something had changed,” Sydney told Yahoo News. “They were very active. He said they were out almost every single night on their missions.”
Bill Mulder had worked his entire life toward serving in the U.S. Navy’s most elite unit — famed for counterterrorism operations all over the world — but he had joined the Navy and served in SEAL Team 5 prior to the war on terror. He was selected for SEAL Team 6 in 2004 before being assigned to Gold Squadron. As the pace of the war picked up, Bill was in a constant deployment cycle, but also honing his skills and building a reputation as a competent operator.
Back home, Bill and Sydney would usually sit down and talk about the deployment over a case of beer — but not this time. Bill, one of the country’s most decorated Navy SEALs, didn’t want to talk about it, and even told her he needed a break. The Navy found a position for him in San Antonio as a SEAL recruiter that would allow him to relax a bit. But he hated it — hated the job and hated being away from his teammates, and began to sink into alcohol abuse.
Then in 2011, Extortion 17 was shot out of the sky. The twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter had been transporting operators from Gold Squadron toward a Ranger element on the ground in Afghanistan’s Wardak province when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. The crash killed all 38 soldiers on board, including 17 Navy SEALs — most of them Bill’s friends from Gold Squadron.
“Those were Bill’s brothers,” Sydney said. “It was f***ing horrible. There was so much collateral damage from that crash.”
From their home in San Antonio, Bill was fielding phone calls from his teammates while Sydney was talking to spouses. They were watching the news about the crash, both of them crying, when they nodded at one another and silently made the decision to go back to SEAL Team 6. In three months, they had sold their house, moved back to Virginia Beach and attended funerals. Bill was assigned to the unit’s newest squadron, created during the war, called Silver Squadron.
But the war had moved on without Bill and Sydney, and the culture of the unit had changed.
“Add this influx of new guys, and I think Bill never found his place when we moved back. It just sucked, it was awful,” Sydney said. In Silver Squadron, Bill was butting heads with his team leader despite the fact that they deployed almost immediately.
Team leader was a position Bill wanted to make, but alcoholism was affecting his performance on the job. “His lack of sleep was constant, the rage, these outbursts,” Sydney said, describing how he had changed. “Paranoia was a big one. His memory was starting to be affected, he was losing things all the time,” she said, attributing these behavior changes to posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
At this point, leadership at SEAL Team 6 knew Bill was struggling, and found a position for him to ride out the rest of his time to retirement. Meanwhile, he tried therapy, including art therapy, and received outpatient treatment at a specialized clinic at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — but not getting a team leader position left him feeling broken and unhappy. At the same time, with retirement looming, he would have to make a massive transition back to civilian life. The music was about to stop.
Bill and Sydney separated for a few months as things deteriorated, and he retired to San Antonio, where he spent a lot of time alone. Unknown to Sydney, Bill was trying to stay in the game: He applied to the CIA’s Ground Branch paramilitary component, but was denied. Sydney and Bill were trying to repair their relationship too, as Sydney was preparing to move their three children down to Texas to be with him. Bill said he had enrolled at a brain treatment center, but there was no evidence of this.
“We lost each other,” Sydney said.
On June 9, 2017, Bill was on FaceTime with the children when one of them asked him why he looked sad. He told them he was sad because he wouldn’t see them for a long time. As the kids got upset, Sydney grabbed the phone and began walking upstairs, telling Bill that he shouldn’t say things like that. Then Bill showed her that he had a gun.
Sydney lowered her voice to a monotone and calmly tried to defuse the situation, even as she held the phone away from herself because she was so frightened. Bill got angry that she was holding the phone at an odd angle. They had a few more exchanges as Sydney tried to calm him, but then he took his own life. Sydney called several times trying to reach Bill, already knowing what had happened. Then she called the police. Around 45 minutes later they confirmed they had found Bill dead in his vehicle in a parking lot.
Sydney’s brother, William Negley, was walking out onto a stage to pitch an app he had created, called Sound Off, when he got the call about Bill. Having served in the CIA, Negley had seen firsthand the mental stresses on America’s covert and clandestine personnel. He also knew how reluctant they were to get over the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues. Sound Off was created to rectify that problem. But now he was on the phone, hearing that what he had hoped to prevent from happening had just happened to his own brother-in-law.
For Negley, the son of a psychologist, it had already been glaringly obvious that mental health was an issue in America’s covert operations community. “My guy who is about to get on a plane to go to Syria, who definitely has a drinking problem and his own issues, is sure as shit not going to walk into agency OMS [the CIA’s Office of Medical Services] and say, ‘Let me tell you about my drinking problem,’” Negley said. “Zero percent chance that is going to happen.”
The obvious solution, from Negley’s point of view, was that there should be a venue for America’s covert operatives and special operators to seek help anonymously as a way to bypass the stigma surrounding mental health care and the fear that people have of losing their security clearances. The need to create such a solution was amplified by the death of Ranya Abdelsayed, who sat near Negley in their office. It was the CIA’s only in-theater suicide.
“I knew I couldn’t bill anybody for anonymous mental health support,” said Negley, who left the CIA in 2016. So he started doing fundraising for the project to build a cellphone app that would allow spies and operators to talk to psychologists anonymously. He was five years into the project when his brother-in-law Bill took his life.
Sound Off went live in Texas in January 2020 and operates with a team of clinicians who provide veterans and active-duty service members with mental health treatment. Negley has partnered with various foundations that serve the special operations community to help reach the people who need Sound Off. Several hundred veterans have been served by Sound Off, and Negley hopes to expand the service nationwide.
The weekend after Bill took his life, Sydney had been lying in bed for hours crying when her brother came to see her. Negley sat down on the bed with her and said, “Syd, this is what I’ve been living, studying and breathing for years.”
“We have to do something,” she replied.
“Will you help me?” Negley asked.
“F***, yeah,” she said.