Can a Helping Hand Avert a Veteran Suicide? I Believe it Can

Twenty-two veteran suicides a day. The bad news assaults us on TV and in newspaper headlines. Each death represents so much pain, suffering and loss. But I believe a helping hand, reached out in a time of desperate need, can help keep a veteran suicide from happening.

I’ve been involved informally with veterans and post-traumatic stress for the past eight years, starting the first website on the subject, HealingCombatTrauma.com. I’ve always seen combat-based post-traumatic stress as a public health issue. If we don’t provide the right care to veterans, the consequences can ripple outward almost indefinitely – societal costs stemming from problems that could have been addressed earlier. Starting now to help veterans can prevent an individual emergency and keep them, their marriages or their families from becoming statistics. I’ll give you an example.

I got to know “Sal,” a Marine, through CaringBridge in 2005 while he was recovering at Walter Reed after losing his legs in an IED blast in Iraq. He impressed me then with his coping skills, natural leadership, humor and intelligence, and he still does. Since then he’s learned to walk again, married his sweetheart, had two kids, moved across the country to a custom-built adaptive home, and generally integrated as favorably as possible.

A few years ago, he reached out to me concerning a longtime Marine friend who served with him in Iraq. Sal was concerned that “Matt” was at risk for suicide. They’d both endured multiple IED explosions and developed TBIs and PSTD. But where Sal’s life had gotten progressively better, it seemed Matt’s was going downhill fast. Sal wondered if I could reach out to him.

Within a few days, after an awkward start, I’d talked to Matt and his mom several times on the phone. Matt had many challenges happening all at once. Not wanting to deviate from the mission at the time, Matt hadn’t been treated for his head injuries on the battlefield as he should have been. Fast forward to a few years later, back in the U.S. and living in rural America, hours from the nearest VA hospital. He was having trouble with his TBIs and he’d been out of PTSD medication for months. His VA therapist had retired six months earlier and he had no replacement for her. His disability rating wasn’t high enough to keep pace with his injuries, so his compensation was too low to pay his bills.

Matt wanted to be back in school, but his head injuries and frequent headaches made concentration difficult to impossible. He was worried he’d be fired from his job for the same reasons. He was also in pain. He loved to play music, but injuries to his hands prevented that. The one true joy and light of his life was his new daughter from a previous relationship, but now it seemed he might lose her too, as her mother was planning to move overseas with her current boyfriend. If all of this were not difficult enough, the bank was about to foreclose on the home he was renting. No wonder he felt like he was at the end of his rope.

After some phone conversations with Matt and his mom, we made a list of all the current issues in his life that needed solutions and worked to formulate a plan to address each. Gradually, Matt was coming off the danger list.

One solution put him in touch with the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and get him a caseworker. That helped him to navigate the VA more successfully: he got another therapist, he got back on his medication and he started getting help with his claims. We worked on solutions to the other problems together, including getting legal assistance for his child-custody case.

Addressing some of Matt’s challenges helped bring him to a more stable place, and he entered the Men’s Trauma and Recovery Program at Menlo Park a few months later. In the program, Veterans learned new skills and put them into practice, and Matt did great. Progress like that might have been unthinkable back in the beginning but now he’s a success story because many people helped starting with Sal, who cared enough to get the ball rolling

I’ve recently had the opportunity to help another OIF/OEF veteran. There are different circumstances and life challenges, but the same need for strategic intervention and TLC. We’ve known each other for years on Facebook, but recently he wanted to know just where my philanthropic motivation was coming from.

I didn’t have a good answer for him right away. I care about him and I want him to make it. I believe with a little direction and tender enveloping of care, he can. A better question might be, why would I not want that for him, or every veteran? Maybe, just maybe, the answer is that we’re all supposed to get involved, if we can and where we can, sharing what we can so that others can heal.

Lily Casura is a longtime journalist and the founder of HealingCombatTrauma.com. She is a chapter author in “Healing War Trauma: A Handbook of Creative Approaches,” published by Routledge in 2012. You can follow her on Twitter at @lilygc, or her HealingCombatTrauma work at @HealingPTSD.

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4 Comments to “Can a Helping Hand Avert a Veteran Suicide? I Believe it Can”

  1. It was so nice that my classmate and friend Dr. Mukund Nori had it as his hobby to man Suicide Hot Lines.

  2. Chrystine Collins-Blums says:

    Thank you, Lily for a great piece! Vets need to “police their own” as we’re taught in the military but after discharge often comes isolation, both geographical and emotional due to physical or emotional injuries. Reaching out and finding the necessary resources can be difficult in the best of circumstances; complicate the situation with other factors and intervention can be a vet’s only real chance. You are a rare civilian who “gets it” having taken the time to get to know vets, learn how vastly different we can be but realize but ( most of us) just want a fair deal after discharge.

    Chrystine Collins-Blums
    OIF III
    ARNG 1984-2009

  3. Randi Jensen says:

    Thanks. Lily, for your dedication to the healing of our military suffering from the invisible and very visible wounds of these wars. We will see more and more of “our” veterans who are far removed from DoD and VA service centers. I have also seen military members who have had their trusted clinicians changed without their knowledge, their benefits altered without warning and no immediate provisions made for a warm handoff to another qualified clinician. It takes time to build trust and a therapeutic alliance. When a military service member feels like that trust is not honored, they do like many of us, they simply stop in their tracks. It is individuals like Lily who say, “No, this is not right. This will not do.” And they make sure that others outside the VA and DoD who can help, do just that. There are so many who need help, the VA simply cannot be everywhere. That means each and every one of us must take up the slack and make sure our troops and veterans get the care they need. Sometimes that means listening and asking questions, doing some research and asking more questions. Just don’t give up – on the process or on the service member. If you need to get more resources, the American Legion is a terrific source. Lily’s website has a plethora of blogs, books and resources. Go there and be informed. It takes all of us to heal this village of America. If you want to know how to form a suicide prevention peer support for anyone you are worried about, go to http://www.jsp3.org. If you need help, do what Lily did, step in and do it. This is going to take all of us getting involved. And thanks to all who do what they can.

  4. James says:

    The truth to the matter is they say care about our health mentally and physically at least hear in wa state the do everything they can not to help you at any va hospital I living proof after 17 years I’m still the same in pain the day I got out and this is a fact, and nobody hear in wa hires vets because its too much a liability and that’s a fact for the reason they don’t cater to the handycap