Amid plague of veteran suicides, advocates struggle to reach a group reluctant to seek help
By ROBERT NOTT AND SAMI EDGE | The Santa Fe New Mexican (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 11, 2017
Anne Solano was holding her baby daughter, Zoey, in her arms as she tried to convince her husband, former Army Staff Sgt. Eric Solano, to put down the gun.
She wasn’t sure what had pushed him over the edge that October morning in 2016. But he had suffered flashbacks the night before and began lashing out in fury and fear.
The 32-year-old Army combat veteran had placed a gun to his head many times before, often pulling the trigger to the sound of a “click,” signifying the gun wasn’t loaded.
This time, it was.
He didn’t say a word before the pulled the trigger. He just growled.
And then he was gone.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” Anne Solano said in a recent interview as tears streamed down her face. “The rage, the anger, it all came out in a split second. I think most vets who try to kill themselves get caught up in that split second, and it’s a mistake. And then it’s too late.”
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a day for honoring the nation’s men and women who served their country in uniform.
But it also should be a day to remember those veterans who took their own lives, Anne Solano and others say. These are the men and women who came home from the battleground, perhaps looking none the worse on the outside, but who silently bore their wounds within.
In 2016, Eric Solano was one of 91 veterans who took his own life in New Mexico, according to data from the state Department of Health. The year before, the figure was 95. In 2014, it was 111.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data from 2014, the latest nationwide data available, New Mexico tied Nevada for having the third-highest rate of veteran suicide, at about 60 deaths per 100,000 veterans, just behind Utah and Montana.
The national veteran suicide rate that year was 38.4 deaths per 100,000 veterans, according to the VA — far higher than the overall U.S. suicide rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 residents.
The numbers provided by the Health Department show a much higher age-adjusted suicide rate for veterans in the state in 2014, at 80.4 deaths per 100,000 veterans. The reason for the differences in the state and federal figures was not immediately clear.
New Mexico consistently has had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, but the death rate for veterans remains nearly three times the state’s overall suicide rate.
Nationally, about 20 veterans a day take their own lives, according to a 2014 report by the VA’s Office of Suicide Prevention.
That’s a catastrophic casualty list in the eyes of the vets’ friends, partners, spouses and comrades.
“One is too many,” said Peter Comstock, chief of staff of the New Mexico chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. A Vietnam combat veteran, Comstock works one-on-one with veterans to ensure they get support when they feel they have run out of options.
Veterans face a number of unique challenges that contribute to a high rate of suicide, said Dr. Brenda Mayne, a psychologist and suicide prevention coordinator for the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.
Among those challenges are physical trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, high instances of chronic pain and insomnia. Vets often feel isolated when they leave the service. And, Mayne said, they often are reluctant to seek assistance.
“Why don’t we ask for help?” said Roger Pipkins, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the infantry during the Vietnam War. “It’s the warrior psychology … and if the veteran doesn’t go ask for help, he is not going to get help.”
Pipkins is one of the co-organizers of Straight Scoop for Vets in Albuquerque, which works to raise awareness about the high rate of suicide among veterans.
In New Mexico, Mayne thinks a lack of economic opportunity and difficulty connecting with support services or potential employers because of the rural nature of the state add even more challenges to the mix.
Comstock said he understands the despair combat vets endure when they readjust to a life without death: finding regular employment, working on a relationship, having children, paying bills and just performing simple everyday tasks that often feel like another mission they must fulfill.
Failing to complete that assignment — like putting together a tricycle as a Christmas gift for a child — can trigger a sense of failure that, in a veteran’s mind, correlates to letting down a fellow soldier in combat.
Add that to other perceived failures, such as suddenly blowing up at a spouse or failing to land a job, and a combat vet may say: “Look what I’ve done, how dishonorable I am. If I take my life, I don’t have to be a responsibility to my family and friends,” Comstock said.
Comstock, 74, can relate with the Eric Solanos of the world. He was one of them. Just 20 years ago on a cool autumn morning, after he ranted and raged at his wife over something he now describes as meaningless, he put on his jungle fatigues, strapped on his sidearm and marched to the top of a nearby mountain in Cedar Crest to take one last look at the valley below.
Then he pulled out his pistol, stuck it in his mouth and began to squeeze the trigger — about four pounds worth of pressure, he said.
Something stopped him.
“I think God said, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to do this,’ ” he recalled.
He returned home to his wife, who was worried for his safety.
“I need some help,” he said.
He wasn’t alone. And he isn’t alone now.
For many combat vets, navigating the bureaucratic twists and turns of the Veterans Affairs Department feels akin to making their way through a minefield of red tape.
Mayne has heard this before.
“My answer back to a vet is: If you survived the Department of Defense, you can work the VA, no problem,” she said.
There are a number of ways veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts can be seen at the VA the same day they show up, Mayne said. If a vet walks into the emergency department or the mental health urgent care and says they need help, they will be seen that day, she said. Veterans also can call or text a national crisis line that can provide intervention support, send emergency help and provide a reference to Mayne’s office, if they choose. According to VA requirements, suicide prevention workers reach out to referrals within 24 hours.
The VA also has started screening vets to identify patients at high risk for suicide, Mayne said. Her department works to follow up with those veterans to make sure “vets don’t fall through the cracks.”
Some, like Eric Solano, still do. The Las Vegas, N.M., native and New Mexico National Guardsman had wanted nothing more than to serve his country since he was a teen, his wife said. They married July 4, 2013 — Independence Day. They talked of dreams most young couples have: raising a child, buying a home, living in New Mexico and being happy.
But two combat tours in Iraq changed all that. Among other horrors, Eric Solano told his wife had seen a tank run over a child. And he suffered from brain trauma after a violent clash with civilian criminals at a border crossing in Kosovo in 2011. Those experiences left their mark.
He came home to a Purple Heart ceremony and a life that was “a mess,” Anne Solano said.
“He didn’t want to talk with anybody,” she said.
Little things set Eric off. Then he started threatening to take his own life — first with a handgun, then with a shotgun.
Anne Solano didn’t call the police, she said, because Eric threatened to commit “suicide by cop.”
By the autumn of 2016, he felt alone and despondent, despite the love of his wife and baby.
“He started to hate himself,” she said.
When Eric did deal with the VA, the results were frustrating because of high turnover among some staff members and the difficulty of accessing services that seemed far away from the couple’s home in rural Ribera.
“You get a counselor, you open up and the counselor moves on,” Anne said.
But Pipkins, Comstock and Mayne say vets cannot give up, even if they are frustrated.
Mayne says her department works to reach veterans by coordinating with groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or Disabled American Veterans and showing up at health and veterans events to do outreach.
When vets get into her office, Mayne said she talks directly with them about the issues they’re facing and lets them know it’s safe to be candid. Usually, she said, the VA won’t hospitalize a veteran who says he or she is suicidal unless they request it.
Hearing that can be a “huge relief” for vets, she said.
Having suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean a veteran needs to be locked up, Mayne said. She tries to approach the situation like a mechanic might.
“The fact that you’re thinking about suicide is like a ‘check engine’ light. It means that something is very wrong — and that doesn’t have to be psychological,” Mayne said. “It’s trying to figure out where you can intervene.”
Pipkins and Comstock both said one challenge is that the people counseling combat vets have never experienced combat themselves. When a psychologist asked Pipkins earlier this year how to work with a traumatized combat veteran who had worked as a sniper, Pipkins said to her, “Do you know what it takes to be a sniper?
“She said no. And I said, ‘That’s your first problem.’ ”
Mayne has family members who served as veterans but is a civilian herself. She does not think that affects her ability to help a veteran.
“I kind of expect them to teach me,” she said.
‘Don’t walk away’
As tough as it is, Comstock said, friends, family members and co-workers have to be open to listening to a veteran who talks of taking his or her own life.
“Stick with them, get them help, don’t walk away,” he said. “I don’t know how many vets, at the last minute, want to call out for help. But it’s too late.”
Anne Solano knows that all too well. Her daughter, Zoey, who is 2 years old, will never get to know her daddy. And other family members, including Anne, who also is a veteran, are suffering in other ways, with disorders such as depression and PTSD, or suicidal thoughts.
“When somebody decides to take their own life, they don’t understand the pain and suffering that their loved ones go through,” Anne Solano said. “We’re left asking the question, ‘Why?’ ”
She knows there are good people working for the VA, but she’s still unhappy that the system did not help her husband.
Still, she said, “If anyone should be held accountable, it should be the politicians. Something’s got to change. They say 20 to 22 veterans are killing themselves every day. And none of these political figures are pushing to change it.”
Looking at a photo of her smiling daughter, Anne Solano again began to cry.
She said, “My husband will never see his daughter blow out another birthday candle.”
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