September is Military Suicide Awareness Month

Published 9:27 am Friday, September 16, 2011

by Gayle Schmitz

The statistics are daunting.

In June 2010, soldiers committed suicide at the rate of one per day according to Army records. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan near the 10-year mark, more and more service members are stressed by multiple deployments.

It is reported that 20-30 percent of returning soldiers have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And, of course, many veterans of earlier wars continue to deal with the emotional scars of the experiences in war zones.

September has been designated as Military Suicide Awareness Month. The Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars is using a blue teardrop to represent, acknowledge and support the dissemination of information about this sad but important issue.

It is often difficult to get veterans to talk about their experiences.

“My war” was Vietnam. These vets, in particular, carry the burden of a war that was not supported. Many friends have told me of their experiences and fears upon returning to the States.

They were ridiculed, criticized and spat upon. It was difficult to find someone in our community who would talk about it and to do so openly. So, the following is the story of a veteran who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Soldier X” joined the Army at age 17. He turned 18 in Vietnam, just before the Tet offensive. He left home a boy and returned a man — one who didn’t know how to relate to his family, high school girlfriend or friends.

He went to a Fourth of July picnic and dove under a table when someone set off a cherry bomb. He always had to sit facing the door in a restaurant — and still does. He was, and is, hyper vigilant in crowds, always looking, always aware.

He suffers from “survivor’s guilt,” especially from one particular episode where he tried to save someone — a “short-timer” who said he was safe, he was going home soon, but got blown up instead. For 40-plus years, he has felt he could have and should have saved this man.

He broke up with his girlfriend and later married and divorced several times. He had a lot of jobs, but couldn’t keep any of them. He drank and took drugs. He thought about suicide.

He was sitting at a bar one day, talking to another vet who told him about PTSD. It was in the 1980s. It had gone by other names in other wars, but the VA hospitals were finally “getting it.”

He went for help, went to support groups and was given a 100 percent PTSD disabled status. He gets paid pretty well for the designation, and his children have been taken care of, but that’s not what he expected for his life.

“It helped to put a name to it, to find out I wasn’t alone,” he said. “I thought it was just me, and that made it worse.”

He’s moved on. He has good days and bad days. There are still the nightmares and night sweats. There are anniversaries that send him spinning. He’s not sure, sometimes, why.

Veterans’ Day is hard, as is 9/11. He helps other vets, does what he can and lives his life. Does he still think about suicide? Yes, but his kids, support from other vets and therapy help.

I asked him why he and other vets weren’t willing to have their names published, and why some were not even willing to acknowledge that they were hurting and needed help. He said there is a stigma, especially for service members wanting to have a career in the military.

If you have a someone you’re worried about, call VFW National Home Hotline at 800-313-4200 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. You can also print out teardrops to wear this month at under “Programs” then “Americanism.”

GAYLE SCHMITZ is a Franklin business owner and life member of the Ladies Auxiliary to the VFW. She can be reached at 516-2660.