By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — A combat veteran’s suicide here Jan. 15 underscores the challenge military branches across the country are facing as men and women return home from service after extended tours of duty.
Veterans groups and advocates said the risk of suicide among veterans has increased over the last few years partly because servicemen and women have served multiple combat tours, and the heavy use of reservists means more service members have families back home. At the same time, mental health services for veterans are overwhelmed.
The man, who died at the National Guard Armory in Methuen, was an active duty sergeant first class in the Massachusetts Army National Guard from Uxbridge and a veteran of two combat tours. He was 50 years old, and married with two children.
Phone calls to the National Guard seeking information about the man’s tours were not returned.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press obtained figures from the U.S. Department of Defense showing 349 active duty military personnel committed suicide last year, the highest number since the Pentagon started closely tracking them in 2001. In Afghanistan, 313 Americans died last year, according to the Pentagon.
“It’s becoming obvious to everyone we’re in a crisis mode here,” said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, who served in the Army along with her husband. “The current statistics are unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for us as a nation and we need to move quicker to address this crisis.”
Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said she could not provide 2012 statistics because the report has not been released yet, but confirmed the AP’s figures.
The number of suicides began rising in 2006, and jumped from 160 in 2001 to 309 in 2009, according to the Pentagon. Defense officials have struggled to deal with suicides, which outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Returning soldiers face a litany of high-stress issues, from multiple tours of duty to worrying about family back home to denial of the need for treatment to difficulty finding a civilian job.
Military personnel have served multiple tours since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Campbell said most wars in the past asked for a single tour of duty, but current service members and reservists routinely have been deployed multiple times.
“They’d either return to normal duty and training, or leave the service. That is a huge difference,” she said.
At the same time, the execution of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have relied heavily on the National Guard and Reserves, units whose members are more likely to have families than younger enlistees. That has created stress among both veterans and their families during deployment.
Returning veterans can have trouble translating their military skills into a civilian job, and can be unemployed for long periods of time, adding another layer of stress.
“At the state level we’re spending a lot of time trying to match up the skills they’re bringing with them to gain employment,” Campbell said. “But it’s not an easy task.”
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said she has introduced bills to train college counselors to recognize PTSD and to require reporting from the VA on mental health vacancies. She said the suicide rate is “staggering.”
“Over the past few years, the Department of Defense has instituted a series of programs and services geared towards preventing military suicides, but a recent study showed inconsistencies among the services in the programs provided,” Tsongas said. “Like the critical matter of sexual assault in the military, suicides are reflective of a military culture that is in need of change. Programs and services must be instituted in addition to working to show that seeking help is not a weakness and working to reduce the stigma of asking for help.”
Northern Essex Community College has a veterans services coordinator, Jeff Williams, to help veterans not only with education, but with other services. “He’s available to counsel veterans and make sure they can access their benefits and know what the benefits are, and connecting veterans with their resources, whether in academics, heath care or financial aid,” said Ernie Greenslade, spokeswoman for NECC.
Tom Hargreaves, director of veterans services for the City of Methuen, said his office reaches out to veterans when it can. Because of privacy laws, the office is not always notified when a veteran returns home. But when it does get notice, the office sends a welcome home letter and invites the vet to come to the office.
Veterans services offices, which are located in each community in the state, provide information about services available for education, health care, job searches and state and federal benefits. Hargreaves said his office recommends veterans sign up for Veterans Affairs health care, provided by the federal government to all veterans and service members.
“Once they’re in our office, we do a series of assessments, not in an invasive way but in a conversational way, to see how their family welfare is, how they are doing,” said Francisco Urena, a former veterans services director in Lawrence and the current commissioner of veterans services in Boston.
Campbell said there had been a stigma associated with acknowledging the need for and seeking treatment, preventing many from getting help that could save their lives.
Researchers with the Rand Corp. found in a 2008 study that barely more than half of veterans exhibiting symptoms of major depression or post traumatic stress disorder had sought help from a physician or mental health provider in the previous year.
The military has tried to boost its suicide prevention efforts recently, increasing the number of behavioral health care providers, attempting to eliminate the stigma of acknowledging and treating a disorder, and launching a study to identify risks and ways to mitigate or moderate suicide-related behavior, Smith said.
Last year, the Pentagon created the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which is responsible for oversight of suicide prevention and resilience programs, including suicide prevention efforts administered by each branch of the armed services, she said.
In Massachusetts, the National Guard has partnered with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to train service members to see in their colleagues some of the warning signs of suicide, such as depression or increased alcohol use, and to encourage them to get treatment.
Veterans Affairs hospitals offers some services for depression, PTSD and other related issues, but Campbell said the hospitals are overwhelmed. The closest VA medical center is in Bedford.
“The VA itself has acknowledged they can’t keep up with the demand in terms of veterans reaching out to the system,” Campbell said. “They’re putting more resources into this need, but it’s difficult for them to keep up.”
The VA also has clinics that provide services to veterans and their families. Established after the Vietnam War, the clinics act as a one-stop clearinghouse for vets who live far from a VA hospital. About two-thirds of the workers are veterans, and the clinics screen visitors for drug and alcohol abuse, help the homeless find a shelter or apartment, and the unemployed find a job. The nearest clinic is in Lowell.
Veterans services offices and a state organization, the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans’ Empowerment, can help veterans navigate the maze of regulations that can discourage, and sometimes restrict, veterans who do seek treatment. The offices also work with local job centers, including Valley Works Career Center in Lawrence and Haverhill, to help veterans find jobs and to find workshops on interviewing for jobs and building a resume.
Massachusetts offers veterans a “welcome home” bonus for each tour, and offers assistance for veterans who cannot find work and are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Veterans services offices distribute bonuses to veterans in their communities, and can help in signing up for benefits.
Veterans looking for assistance, or a veteran’s family, also can call the Military Crisis number, 1-800-273-8255.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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Veteran suicides and war deaths since 2001 YEAR Suicides Afghanistan deaths Iraq deaths 2001 160 11 NA 2002 171 49 NA 2003 190 45 486 2004 195 52 846 2005 189 98 844 2006 213 98 820 2007 223 117 903 2008 267 155 313 2009 309 311 148 2010 295 499 48 2011 301 414 0 2012 349 313 NA (Source: Department of Defense)