Feature of the Week
November 20, 2018
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Every day 22 veterans commit suicide

  • At the Santa Rosa Memorial Cemetery, stand silhouettes of military veterans that have taken their own life. Irene Hilsendager

By: Irene Hilsendager
September 7, 2018

Suicide among military veterans has increased tremendously. Some statistics have placed it from 28 to 33 percent in the last three years. Some states also have a higher rate of suicides among veterans. 

Some western states show a higher rate of death for veterans but that could suggest social isolation, gun ownership and not enough military health care access. States like Montana, Utah and New Mexico had high rates of veteran suicides but again the VA medical centers were a great distance from their place of residence. The Department of Veteran Affairs also stated that West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky had high veteran suicide rates but a VA study showed that many of the deaths were due to heavy drug use, including opioids.

Why do so many soldiers take their own lives at a much higher rate than their civilian equals? After having spoken to a veteran and a father of a vet, there are so many more questions to be answered. Why is the military not paying attention to these soldiers when they can see the person is going into a dark place? One young soldier, Chris Ishmeal of Santa Rosa, had been to Iraq during his tour. Chris never talked about it but on the other hand knew he needed help. The Army documented the issues but nothing was ever discussed. Since Chris was showing symptoms just before he left Iraq and went on to Korea, instead of the military giving help and suggestions, he was reduced in rank and given a discharge.  The discharge was an honorable one with benefits, which is usually not done but could it be because they knew of the symptoms but rather than give aid he was booted out of the service. 

Everything was documented but no assurance of help was given, Chris started to drink very heavily and his appetite was gone. His father said” He looked like a prisoner of war, with deep dark eyes and cheeks that were sunken in.” The young vet documented all issues and rightfully went to the VA clinic but he was sliding fast. Since he could not talk in a group session he tried to get help just talking one on one with a psychologist but that did not help. Ishmeal was put into a psych ward which was not the place to be and then was moved to the intensive care unit as he was not able to eat. He attended an eating class in Berkeley to no avail as it contained both civilians and military and each has to be treated differently. Chris was not eating very much but whatever he ate did not stay with him. Therefore, the young soldier flunked eating class. His body was hurting and according to the doctors, his brain was shrinking; he was in terrible pain not only physical but mental. Does this mean the VA doesn’t know how to deal with these brave soldiers or just not understanding the emotional toll it takes to be going over to strange countries and fighting for the freedom of the United States?

Even veterans that were in World War II had horror stories to tell but that generation merely “stuffed it.” Not many from that era ever talked about the atrocities they had seen.

The returnees from Viet Nam were even more so. Upon getting their discharge and coming back to the United States they were not greeted with cheers and good job, instead they were called baby killers, wife killers, sadistic jerks and many other names. No military hospital would discuss such issues and the vets again either went to drinking, drugs or suicides. 

Many of the homeless vets are from that age group and even now do not want to discuss the horrors they went through. 

Many retired vets pushed themselves into becoming workaholics. Anything to keep the mind from returning to the horrors of war. Many veterans realize the need for more communication; just to be willing to open up and try to talk it out and some have even gone back to school to get a master’s degree so they can offer their comrades more insight. The key is to reach out and find a sounding board and know there are resources; be it medical independently or military, but the public has to be made aware of the help that is needed for all of the military that come back healthy or shows signs of depression and wanting to go into the black holes of hell.

Kerry, the father of Chris, was not in the military but he was overseas transporting deceased bodies and to this day he is also being treated for the atrocities he saw and going through everything with his son. Kerry has migraines every day and compares himself to the many nurses that were in Viet Nam as it has been proven those came back with severe headaches. VA data showed that women veterans are at a much greater risk for suicide than female civilians.

So, what is the reason for veteran suicides? Is it going overseas to a war they don’t understand and feeling that the war has never been won? Isn’t there a saying “History repeats itself”.  So why are we still overseas fighting for what we call freedom?

Could it be that a body is born to just give so much and repeated deployments will just drain them and can it be an escape and look for the fastest way out?

How many times can the brain be mistreated by the roadside bombs and blasts?

Or probably the loneliness and isolation give them too much time to think? 

Will there be another war on the horizon? 

The suicide rate among middle-age and older adult veterans is very high. All older aged veterans who died by suicide were age 50 or older.

Retired Army Sgt. Shawn Jones, executive director of Stop Soldier Suicide, said veterans’ suicide is an issue that needs greater awareness to provide community support for those in need. Transitioning back to civilian life can be very difficult for active-duty members who may return home with physical and mental conditions and feel unable to open up to friends and families. Therefore, some veterans can feel overwhelmed by daily challenges of finding a job, buying a house and supporting a family. Since the military is a close-knit community, as you transition out, you tend to lose that feeling a little bit and feel like an island. 

The VA has reported a huge upswing in veterans looking for medical care as they have returned from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Veterans have more complex injuries so if the doctors don’t ask the right questions to a veteran complaining of back pain, they may just prescribe opioids not realizing the vet was also suffering PTSD or brain injury. The VA has been examining ways to boost suicide prevention efforts.

The Crisis Stabilization Unit, 2225 Challenger Way in Santa Rosa, provides 24-hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week crisis intervention, assessment, medication and up to 23 hours of supportive care for individuals in an acute mental health crisis. Services are available for children, youth, adults and their families. Referrals are made to Crisis Residential Services or inpatient mental health facilities for those needing a high level of psychiatric inpatient care or call 707-576-8181.

The suicide prevention hotline is available to any Sonoma County resident who needs help. The hotline is a vital resource to any family member, loved one, friend or ally who may be worried about someone who may be suicidal. The 24-hour toll-free hotline, 855-587-6373 is administered by the North Bay Suicide Prevention Program of Buckelew Programs.

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide for support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year may chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or text to 838255.