Eric J. Hesse was an Army colonel at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in 2006 when an enlisted man under his logistical command in the 10th Mountain Division committed suicide. “I have my demons; some things are easier to talk about than others,” said Hesse, director of the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs. ”We have to keep working so that no other soldiers commit suicide.”
Hesse spoke at the 3rd Annual National Veterans Mental Health Conference at Adelphi University on March 17. One of seven workshops given that day by clinicians brought in by the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island (516-489-2322, ext. 1260) was on suicide. Twenty-two members of the military community are taking their lives every day in the U.S. In fact, suicides are killing more military members than wars.
“He was attached to my unit from a unit in California,” Hesse said. “He had a family. He had lost a brother in Iraq. Maybe there was stuff going on at home nobody knew about…He did just fall through the cracks. He had friends, teammates in that unit. Did they maybe see something and not ask the questions they should have, like, ‘are you hurting?’ before he pulled the trigger. It’s up to us to fill the cracks.”
The conference’s keynote speaker, retired Army brigadier general Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist who is New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s commissioner of veterans affairs, said she thinks veterans miss the camaraderie of their old units when they come home and need time to decompress. “Community is the civilian equivalent of unit cohesion,” she said, adding that veterans clubs should be converted to community centers where veterans could be connected to services as well as attend social events. “We have to harness the experience of community,” Sutton said, “make the best use of our existing infrastructure.”
She suggested that yoga, equine therapy, use of service dogs and acupuncture can be effective out-of-the-box aids in helping veterans reintegrate into civilian society. “We have to move the front lines from the hospitals and clinics,” she said. “There have to be integrative retreats. We have to start from the bottom up.”
Raffy Rivera, 29, deployed to Afghanistan with the 372nd Military Police Company from 2010-11, said he also worked as a civilian contractor there to defuse improvised explosive devices. Rivera said yoga has helped with his reintegration. “I was driving in convoys over deadly ground,” he said. “It wasn’t if but when we were going to get blown up. Yoga helped me find a grounding to find out what was bothering me.”
Hesse said peer-to-peer counselling also is effective in helping returning troops transition into civilian life. “Peer-to-peer programs work,” he said. “We ought to say ‘thank you for your service’ but also, ‘How are you doing?’ How do we change the face of PTSD? We want vets to be able to come in and get the service they want and not be afraid of the label PTSD and how it’s going to affect them as far as a job.”
Fifty-five and older is the population most affected by suicide, clinicians said. A workshop on “Effective Ways to Deter Suicide” was given by Karen Carlucci, a social worker with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and Max Banilivy, director of the Family Wellness Center in Manhasset with comments from Thomas J. Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council of Vietnam Veterans of America in Silver Spring, Md. Carlucci said the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-TALK) gets 1,282 calls a day and has taken 1.5 million calls since 2007.
She said the line connects veterans, service members or their families to caring Veterans Affairs responders for support or information. The counselors also are available for online chats at the website veteranscrisisline.net or texts via 838255. She said the majority of callers are male and the average call lasts 21 minutes.
Carlucci said the crisis line helps ‘to make those who feel lost know there is some direction we can point them in.” She said counselors say “I’m here to listen not judge; take your time.”
Some issues that push some veterans to consider suicide are: readjustment challenges, anger, denial, irritability, aggressiveness, drinking and drug abuse. Callers are referred to suicide prevention coordinators who in turn recommend signing up with the VA and treatment referrals, and also make follow-up calls. Presenters said those who are more connected to family and community are less likely to act on suicidal thoughts.
“You don’t have to be mentally ill to think about suicide,” Banilivy said. “It’s an everyday relationship issue…The military is full of stigma about appearing weak.”
Berger, a Navy corpsman who survived the siege at Khe Sanh in Vietnam, said “suicide is a process. One or two events can push a person if they can’t find the support they need.”
In another workshop, Berger said that there are links between suicide, TBI and PTSD but no firm figures are available. More than 300,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries since 2000, roughly 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those vets typically are 20-30 years old and many were injured by blasts from IEDs, incoming projectiles or their own artillery.
Two longtime veterans’ advocates were honored at the conference: Frank Amalfitano, director of United Veterans Beacon House, and Tom Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency. Amalfitano told me Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was shown a copy of my recent column on Eric Swenson (denied a military burial at Calverton cemetery due to a less than honorable discharge) and said she would urge the Department of Defense to look into Swenson’s case. Swenson suffered what a doctor now says was a traumatic brain injury while on duty in the Army in Germany, resulting in erratic behavior and a discharge under less than honorable conditions. Ronayne and Amalfitano are working to have Swenson’s discharge upgraded to honorable so he can be exhumed and reburied at Calverton.