JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Gen. Frank Grass called suicide an “epidemic.”
On Wednesday, Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau and a Joint Chiefs of Staff member, discussed the issue, as part of Community Response Symposium VIII, a local event dedicated to addressing the needs of servicemen and servicewomen when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think it’s an epidemic almost in our society in certain age groups,” said Grass during a presentation inside the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
“Of course, being in the Guard, we reflect the demographics of our nation, so we’re seeing the same things that are happening across the nation in various age groups.”
Suicide awareness was a prominent subject during this year’s symposium, hosted by the Pennsylvania Disabled Veterans Rehabilitation/Vocational Retraining Project, that also took place at the Hiram G. Andrews Center and Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown.
“We’ve been educating as many people as we possibly can on suicide intervention skills, specifically the training we use called ‘applied suicide intervention skills training,’ ” said Capt. Sarah Lambert, manager of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s resilience, risk reduction and suicide prevention program.
“We teach our leaders how to identify someone that’s at risk for suicide, how to ask the questions and then how to get that person safe and then get them followed up to professional care.”
Larry Stiles, a candidate in next year’s 12th district U.S. House race, compared suicide among modern soldiers and veterans to the time he spent in the Marine Corps.
“When I was in Vietnam, we didn’t have that issue, so we need to improve with that,” said Stiles.
Part of the process of suicide prevention is teaching family members, friends and co-workers of returning service people about the warning signs.
“The Guard, more than any branch, knows that when these men and women come back from deployment, they sort of scatter to the wind,” said former U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, a Johnstown resident and candidate in next year’s race for lieutenant governor.
“It’s a little harder to keep up with them and make sure that they’re getting the services that they may absolutely need.”
Along with suicide prevention, the symposium offered presentations about a wide variety of other issues affecting veterans and military personnel.
“The main reason for the symposium is to bring all of these things to light,” said Marty Kuhar, a member of the Cambria County War Memorial Authority and Grass’s local escort officer for the day.
“We’re not going to solve any problems, but I think it’s so important just to bring all of these issues to the American people and our local area.”
Tom Caulfield, the event’s coordinator, added, “There are a lot of issues that need attention: issues such as traumatic brain injury, suicide prevention, the quicker movement of disability claims, homelessness.”