Second of two parts. See part one here.
Forty-seven Maine veterans killed themselves in 2013.
These lost lives are part of a much larger national problem, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which is why federal and state officials and suicide prevention advocates are taking steps to raise awareness of the issue.
“Our veterans are battling [post-traumatic stress disorder], depression, survivor’s guilt and a plethora of other [feelings] that are a direct result of war,” Cherryfield resident and retired Navy corpsman Shawn Goodwin said Friday in a Facebook post.
After learning that 22 veterans per day nationally are taking their own lives, Goodwin organized last month’s Machias ATV Ride for a Reason to benefit Active Heroes, an organization devoted to reducing veteran suicides.
“It’s an ugly truth, but turning your head while 22 veterans take their own lives daily will do nothing to change this atrocious statistic,” he said.
Records show 19 percent of all suicides in Maine in 2012 and 2013 involved former military service members. There were 209 suicides recorded in 2012, with 40 involving veterans, and 240 suicides in 2013, with 47 recorded as veterans, according to Kim Haggan, director of Statistical Services for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Haggan cautioned that the data does not indicate military service led to these deaths.
“There may be many years between the service time and time of death, so the suicide may not be connected to being a veteran,” she said.
Maine has a relatively low percentage of veterans who die by suicide annually, despite having one of the highest per-capita populations of retired military personnel in the country. But the national data is sobering. About 22 percent of all suicides nationally involve veterans, according to the VA data.
The national data shows that suicide deaths among young male veterans, age 29 or younger, have increased, but the largest group of deaths is still middle-aged male veterans, according to Robert Bossarte, director of the epidemiology program for the VA.
“There is a misconception that it’s young vets who have deployed,” he said. “More than 70 percent of our veteran suicides are age 50 and older and have been out of the service for years.”
Bossarte also stressed that the VA’s numbers are based on veterans who use Veterans Health Administration services, which he estimates accounts for about 65 percent of those who have served in the military, and that only 34 states provide veteran suicide data to the VA. That means the real numbers could be vastly different.
It’s estimated there are 127,234 veterans in Maine, according to VA data from 2014, and out of the total number, 94,604 served during wartime. But many veterans who kill themselves never were in combat, according to experts.
“Just under 42.8 percent [of veterans who die by suicide] have never been deployed,” said Caitlin Thompson, deputy director of suicide prevention for the VA.
The prevalence of veterans taking their own lives is alarming enough that the Department of Veterans Affairs began an intensive effort to reduce suicides, especially after passage of the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act of 2007. Omvig, who suffered from PTSD and took his own life shortly after returning from a tour in Iraq, has become the human face for this national mental health problem.
“Ninety percent of suicidal people have a mental health issue that can be treated,” said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention.
The numbers resonate with Goodwin, who knew two veterans who took their own lives and was confronted with someone talking about suicide while deployed in Guatemala.
“He said something like, ‘Maybe the world would be better if I wasn’t here,’” Goodwin recalled recently. “Because it’s such a stigma, I looked the man in the eye and I knew he needed help right then, but all I [did] was go into the other room and finish my work.”
Ten minutes later, Goodwin came out of his office and the soldier was gone. A search was started and his suicidal friend was found just in time.
“He had about 40 or 50 pills in front of him, and he was writing a letter to his wife,” Goodwin said. “I almost let him die because I didn’t do the right thing the first time.”
Veterans helping veterans
Connecting veterans with other veterans is one way to help those who are struggling emotionally, according to Maj. James Brindle, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Unlike during World War II, when four out of five adult males served in the military, the percentage of the population that now serves is less than 10 percent, Brindle said.
“There are not as many veterans around who fully understand — who have been to Iraq, been to Afghanistan and been in modern combat,” Brindle said.
That is why programs such as Vets4Warriors, which gather veterans, service members and family members together to talk, are so important, said Brindle, especially in places such as Maine where Guard and Reserve members are scattered and there is only one active duty military base, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. The Power of 1 is another program.
“It’s effortless for two veterans to become friends,” Goodwin said. “It’s the brotherhood. It’s the community. It’s easy.”
The government also has mobilized to address the problem.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order in mid-2012, the year when active military deaths by suicide resulted in more casualties than the war in Afghanistan, designed to improve mental health services for veterans, service members and military families.
The order has led to a flurry of initiatives nationwide, including in Maine, with military leaders in the state asking those struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental illness — who have been afraid the issues would affect their careers — to step forward and ask for help. Omvig, an Army specialist with the 339th Military Police Co. from Gillette, Wyoming, had these fears and never sought help.
Female veterans and Vietnam era veterans are two groups identified that require additional interventions and engagement, the VA’s 2012 suicide data report states.
The VA has increased the crisis line workforce by 50 percent, hired 1,600 new mental health professionals and an additional 300 support staff, according to Thompson, who stressed that “you don’t have to be suicidal to call the crisis line. We get over 1,200 calls a day.”
In addition to adding more crisis line staff, the VA also is tracking referrals and doing follow-up calls to keep veterans engaged and on task with their mental health care.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine provides free support services for a veteran’s entire family through their NAMI Homefront program, which focuses on post-deployment and post-discharge transitions. It also has an online Veterans and Military Resource Center.
In Maine, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, according to the Maine State Health Assessment Intentional Injury report for 2012. It also is the 10th leading cause of death nationally.
On the national level, about 39,000 U.S. citizens die by suicide each year, according to Reidenberg.
“That’s one every 13 minutes. That’s 108 people every day,” he said at a recent Poynter Institute forum. “If 108 people died daily in any other way, action would be demanded to address the problem, but that is not the case with mental illness because of the stigma.”
Goodwin said he recently learned about the rate of veteran suicides and it gave him a new mission. He is inspired by Army Capt. Justin Fitch, who is fighting terminal colon cancer and advocating for suicide prevention. Goodwin left Maine on Friday and met up with Fitch at the Ruck 5.0 — Carry The Fallen — Team Minuteman in Boston, where he carried a 50-pound rucksack to honor and bring awareness to fellow veterans with suicidal tendencies.
“We are all warriors and dying in battle is an honor … but it’s simply sad to see brave soldiers feel so alone they take their own lives,” Goodwin said.
Veterans and their loved ones can call 800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net, or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year.