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Breaking the silence

One of Andrew O’Brien’s goals is to speak to service members before they leave the military, in hopes that those who are struggling as he did can relate to his story.

A growing number of veteran advocates are pushing for just that kind of interaction between recently returned veterans and troops who are about to enter the civilian world. The hope is that the discussion will save lives.

“For those who do come back and are silent … there is a greater risk of suicide,” said Jarod Myers, an Iraq veteran and the regional veterans outreach coordinator for Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, which provides mental health services. “But if service members are able to engage in that process early on, we are more likely to avoid that horrible situation.”

In his 2010 book “What It’s Like to Go to War,” author and veterans advocate Karl Marlantes writes that such discussions among veterans and active-duty troops should be mandatory before discharge. “It gets the talk started, breaks the damaging code of silence that stops the integration process,” Marlantes wrote. “This process could go on in civilian life, because now it’s legitimized and the young veterans know how to do it. Some veterans will always be afraid to bring back their nightmare. They need to know early on that the nightmare can be faced.”

Much of the military’s suicide prevention effort has been aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding mental health treatment that O’Brien experienced at Schofield Barracks. While it’s hard to measure, and military suicides remain on the rise, officials say the message is beginning to penetrate.

“The paradigm in the military is changing from ‘I’m too tough, I can handle it by myself,’ to help-seeking behavior,” said Lt. Col. Alba Villanueva, director of joint family support services for the Texas Army National Guard, which has experienced more than 20 suicides since 2008, the second-most in the nation. “Commanders are looking at it that way, that it’s not a weakness, but a natural condition if you experienced trauma.”
 

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