Pentagon: Active-military suicides almost one a day in U.S.
It was Veterans Day 2011 and Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz was on a float at a welcome-home parade in New York City, behind Connecticut singers performing the Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic tunes.
“You’re going down 5th Avenue and it’s just like in the movies! People are waving, it’s all going well,” Schwartz recalls. “And then you come home and there’s a message on your phone, and someone is calling because their sister who had served in Bosnia … committed suicide. And you say to yourself, here on this day, to feel so alone…”
Her voice trails off as she recalls the day she heard veteran Lisa Silberstein of Hamden had taken her own life at 37.
Silberstein’s death was one catalyst for the expansion of a state support program for veterans, but the wave of returning vets from two wars and multiple deployments has arguably stacked the deck and pushed military suicide totals to disturbing numbers nationwide.
Active-military suicides are running almost one a day in this country, according to new Pentagon figures. There were a record 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year, up from 301 the year before.
A records check by Scwhartz of those buried at one of two state veterans cemeteries shows suicides are running about one a week in this state for active and nonactive service people. Officials on the front lines of the suicide prevention fight are fighting back with a mix of outreach, local clinical help and programs that partner with the huge and plodding Department of Veterans Affairs.
Officials and clinicians are convinced the localized focus (the Military Support Program) is helping in the state, although the problem here and nationally is likely worse than the official numbers since some such deaths in military zones aren’t officially logged as suicides, or when the cause of death at home isn’t stated as suicide out of respect for the family, religious concerns or insurance claims, Schwartz said.
Silberstein’s sister, Cindy Dubuque of East Haven, said Silberstein suffered from PTSD after Bosnia, where friends of hers died in a mess hall fire and she was held up at gunpoint. But she was denied claims for compensation by the VA, which kept delaying the process of reviewing her qualifying paperwork.
“She was very devoted to her military service,” said Dubuque. “Her work was her life … and her identity was so wrapped up in being a soldier. After she got out … it was hard for her to make that transition to civilian life.” Especially in a new state.
After leaving the service with an honorable discharge, Silberstein worked as a corrections officer in Arizona, but moved to Connecticut to be near her fiance. With no job here and a growing depression, Silberstein may have felt “worthless,” for a lack of a better word, said her sister. Which makes the VA’s delays so frustrating.
“These are people’s lives,” said Dubuque. “These are people who sacrificed a lot for the rest of us. And the least you can do is either stick to the timeline (for help) … or adjust your timeline so that people aren’t sitting around hoping and praying. … Be honest.”
Asked about agency responsiveness, VA suicide prevention worker Maureen Pasko said, “It’s pretty complex. I think the biggest thing we’ve done over time, and need to continue to do, is kind of get the message to the people who need it. And a lot of that is just education, awareness and training because if you don’t know how to identify somebody who is at risk, you won’t know they need help.”
She said she can’t comment on Silberstein’s case because she’s part of the Veterans Health Administration while another part of the VA, the Veterans Benefits Administration, decides on benefits.
Hundreds of suicides, programs
After the suicides of Silberstein and another woman vet, Schwartz began looking at the recent records of vets buried at a state veterans cemetery, and found more than a dozen. Recently, she said, the toll is averaging one a week.
There are two things that are epidemic among military people, said Schwartz: The number of suicides and the number of reported sexual assaults and harassment cases.
The suicide problem is so daunting that the Department of Defense and veterans agencies have thrown hundreds of programs and reports at it, with mixed results at best. Defense spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith called suicide “one of the most urgent problems facing the department.”
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has made it a priority and said last year that supervisors cannot allow anyone to “haze or ostracize” those seeking professional help.
The Connecticut National Guard has lost at least five people to suicide since the Afghan and Iran wars began — all of them in 2011 and 2012, including an apparent suicide just after Christmas.
Col. John Whitford of the Army National Guard in Hartford said five is still too many for the Guard, but that the state’s recent approach does work, sometimes by identifying and following an at-risk service person from before deployment.
Schwartz noted the Guard and Reserve members are different than active Army because “they grow up together, they train together … go to war together. It’s like going to war with your high school class. … It’s just a very strong and intense bonding that people may never know.”
But a Connecticut resident who serves in the Massachusetts National Guard saw it another way.
“The programs are there for the active-duty guys,” said Capt. Kyle Knowles. “The Guard guys, they’re put through the ringer of all these medical and psychological tests … and then they go back into the civilian world, and you kind of lose track of them.”
Mental health awareness
Jim Tackett, director of veterans services for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said he wishes that not only could all military folks returning to Connecticut connect with counselors but also that citizens be educated on the challenges of war because “a grateful nation has a role to play.”
He said, “One of the hallmarks of returning from deployment is that there are some predictable psychological and behavioral challenges, symptoms that have everything to do with PTSD but might not rise to the full level of a diagnosis,” he said. “And it’s all normal; it’s part of the adjustment process.”
As for causes of suicide, Tackett said according to an analysis of state cases, top presenting conditions involved depression (41 percent), anxiety (17 percent), PTSD (17 percent) and other issues (13 percent). Whitford said relationship issues played a major part in the Guard suicides.
New figures by the U.S. Defense Department, based on analysis of 2011 numbers, show the connection to relationship problems, according to Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, who listed “a known failure in a spousal or intimate relationship (47 percent of suicides), with many experiencing the failure within the month prior to suicide (28 percent). The VA’s Pasko said “people who have lost a significant relationship in their life can certainly be at increased risk, particularly if they don’t have other supports or resources to help them during that loss.”
In online forums on suicide, veterans complain also about the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act, which puts future retirement pay in the realm of divorce judgments, as a depression factor.
JOBS, NEWTOWN, LEGACY
The difficulty of a draw-down of forces during an economic downturn isn’t to be ignored either. A history of job loss or demotion was linked to 21 percent of suicides.
Other connections: One in four had a history of substance abuse. A guns were the leading method of suicide, the report said.
Multiple deployments — pushed by the military to serve two wars — are a serious factor, Schwartz said, leading some soldiers to make return visits to drug-and-alcohol treatments centers. “They never had a chance to decompress from the first one; they just keep living it, and it’s almost like they’re trying to outrun their memories.”
Asked about the Newtown tragedy’s effect on veterans, Tackett said, “One of the features of post-traumatic stress disorder is that it can be delayed. And something like Newtown can certainly trigger PTSD in folks.”
Tackett said he and MSP coordinator Fran Simcic make up the entire Veterans Services unit at DMHAS (which, like other state departments, is in a budget hole), so the clinicians’ work is key. But some DMHAS employees around the state do chip in, on the new veterans’ jail-diversion program, for example. That initiative allows two uses of accelerated rehabilitation for minor offenses and works with court personnel to identify and engage veterans who are in the criminal justice system to try to avoid a full downward spiral. Court personnel have been very cooperative, Tackett said. “What’s different about Connecticut’s approach is that we invested a lot of effort in systems integration. Elsewhere in the country, veteran treatment courts for instance, the veteran has only one treatment option, and that’s with the VA. … (Here) the veteran can choose from among the services being offered” from various sources.
Asked about her older sister’s legacy, Dubuque tells the story of going to funeral services for her partner’s nephew in Massachusetts, who was killed in Afghanistan in August. She met a care coordinator there who referred her to one in Connecticut at the State Armory.
“And it was very helpful to me. … And on Veterans Day (2012), which was the one-year anniversary of my sister’s passing, they did a 5K run in honor of Michael (the fallen warrior) and I wore a shirt that on the front said ‘PTSD’ and on the back said, ‘Some wounds you can’t see’ and it had a picture of my sister. … My goal at that event was not only to honor Michael … but to help us remember that people not only die from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) but from the after-affects of war. … The war’s not over for these folks when they come home.”