BY RANDY DOCKENDORF
In 2011, a total of 283 U.S. soldiers took their own lives — and that figure was already nearly matched at the half-way mark of this year, a South Dakota National Guard official says.
As of Aug. 10, military statistics showed 191 active Army soldiers had taken their own lives during the calendar year, according to SDNG spokesman Maj. Tony Deiss. In addition, 54 Army National Guard soldiers had committed suicide as of July 13.
"Suicides are occurring across every segment of the force — active, Guard and Reserve; officers and enlisted soldiers; deployed, non-deployed and those who have not deployed; as well as Army civilians and family members," Deiss said.
"There has been an effort by all branches of the military to address the recent issue of increased suicide rates in recent years, especially this year."
Deiss did not have specific statistics about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, the SDNG and other military branches encourage their members to seek help if needed, he said.
"We reassure our service members that, by coming forward and admitting they are having issues with PTSD, that their career is not in jeopardy or will reflect negatively on them," he said.
"We want them to come forward, get the help they need and continue to be valued members of our organization."
The military has emphasized helping its members deal with their mental needs, Deiss said.
"Our number one priority in the SDNG is taking care of soldiers and airmen and their families, and making sure we are doing what we can to ensure our service members are getting the help they might need with any emotional issues is very important," he said.
Resources are available for service members struggling with thoughts of suicide, depression or mental health issues, Deiss said. Those resources include chaplains, military and family life consultants and mental health professionals.
"We also have a State Suicide Prevention Program Manager and Transition Assistance Advisor to assist service members returning from deployment, not to mention a number of support help lines that service members receive," he said.
The SDNG has made the suicide issue part of its formal program, Deiss said.
"In recent years, the Guard was required to have at least one hour of suicide awareness and prevention training during the training year," he said.
"Over the next several months, we are having a suicide stand down, where Guard units will complete a total of eight hours of suicide awareness and prevention training and briefings."
Back To School
The issue of suicide, depression and mental health is not limited to current military members.
The University of South Dakota, like other colleges, offers services for student veterans facing the double challenge of transitioning to civilian life and to a campus atmosphere.
Bruce Kelley and Justin Smith, with the USD Center for Teaching and Learning, are co-authoring a book on preparing a campus to assist veteran students. The book is coming out next year through Stylus publishing.
They note the results of a recent national study of student veterans (Rudd, Goulding & Bryan, 2011) that explored the psychological symptoms, symptom severity and suicide risk of these veteran students. What researchers found, in the words of the author, "was alarming":
- 24 percent of the sample experienced "severe depression";
- 35 percent of the sample experienced "severe anxiety";
- 46 percent experienced significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder;
- 7.7 percent have made an attempt to take their own life;
- 46 percent of the sample reported thinking about suicide.
At USD, Smith wants military veterans to know they have a friend on campus. Veterans comprise about 450 of the 10,000 students on the Vermillion campus, he said.
Smith serves as project director for the federal Fides (Latin for "promise") grant that assists veterans transitioning to campus.
"It's about communication, about reaching out and helping them tell their story, he said.
But that's not always easy for either the veterans or those around them, he said.
"Just last week, one of my students came into my office and said, 'I'm not telling my story. I've walled off that part of my life," he said.
As the conversation continued, Smith learned the student had actually shared his combat experiences with someone and was upset at the reaction.
"The other person had said, 'I completely understand where you are coming from,' because they were both veterans," Smith said. "But my student didn't think the other person could understand because they had been in completely different places."
Smith sees the experience as a valuable teaching moment.
"Hopefully, even though people don't share those same experiences, they have the capacity to empathize and imagine what the veteran is going through," he said. "But one piece of advice that I would give family and friends: drop the assumptions. Try to ask questions that don't carry a lot of assumptions that 'it must be like that.'"
Many veterans may find it difficult to talk about their experiences, but it's not a taboo topic, Smith said.
"I don't think veterans want to be treated with kid gloves. You can talk about (combat) if there is a way it comes up naturally," he said. "Most veterans believe they were just doing their job. They don't want to be put on a pedestal. They need a space where they can feel free to be themselves."
A New Home For Help
At USD, veterans are finding a new home for dealing with the transition home.
The Student Veterans Resource Center (SVRC) will celebrate its grand opening Tuesday. An open house runs from 1:30-3:30 p.m., with USD President Jim Abbott offering remarks at the 2 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony.
The facility is located at the Temporary Student Center 117D on the USD campus.
"This is a great resource for our student veterans and for students attending USD who are still active in the military, as well as their families," noted Jason R. Dean, USD veterans coordinator. "The Student Veterans Resource Center represents USD's commitment to our student veterans and provides them with a location necessary for academic and personal growth."
Resources provided by the office include benefits assistance, study space and a setting for veterans to share their military experience with other students on campus.
The center provides an important area for social support, Smith said.
"(Veterans feel) this disconnect from other college students, many of them 18 or 19 years old, who have different priorities in life," he said. "The veterans are not only chronologically older, but they also have a different maturity and life experiences when they come back from the service. They may be very career focused, and sometimes they are raising a family."
The opening of the SVRC will offer one more outreach on campus, aid Brendan Whalen, president of the USD Veterans Club.
"Each branch of the military has their own transition assistance class that is mandatory to attend before separating from service," he said. "There are also resources through the VA such as the Vet Center which help with counseling and transitional services."
Other resources include the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and Disabled American Veterans (DAV). The Student Veterans of America (SVA) lobbies on behalf of educational benefits and can assist with help needed in navigating the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
In South Dakota, callers facing a crisis can dial 211 from any phone for a help line and talk with a person on the other end, Whalen said.
"Most important in combating suicide and PTSD is building a strong network of friends and family to support any veteran battling these crippling diseases," he said. "This is one of the main goals of the USD Veterans Club: to provide a strong and immediate support network for all members who are facing any crisis."
Smith recommended talking about veterans as everyday persons — fellow human beings who have faced extraordinary circumstances.
"My experience in teaching a veteran-only class at USD is that though they may be quietly proud of the service to our country, they often struggle against public perception that characterizes them in a negative light," he said. "Presenting them as a hero or someone to be pitied misses the mark and sets up more barriers to rejoining their community. First and foremost, we must present them in way we would want to be presented, in a way that invites connection, not being set apart because of their line of work."
"I think a key to preventing more military suicides is creating spaces in our community where they feel they can share their story and believe someone else can empathize with their experience," he added.
That means building a relationship, which carries risks, Smith said. "A big key for any relationship is building trust over time, meaning you do what you say and say what you do," he said.
Veterans and active military members need to know they have support, Smith said.
"We want them to know, you're not alone," he said. "There are people in your life that care and want to know what you need."
For more information about the USD Student Veterans Resource Center, contact the Veterans Services Office at (605) 677-8833 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.usd.edu/veterans.
For crisis assistance, visit online at http://www.helplinecenter.org/211communityresources.aspx.