36,000 veterans were asked if they’d recently considered suicide. A third of them said yes.
By ALISON BOWEN | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 9, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Dan Miller didn’t ask for help when he woke up shouting from nightmares about war. He didn’t ask for help after his 1991 deployment in Operation Desert Storm, or after two deployments to Iraq in 2004 and 2008.
He thought about the men he felt he couldn’t save. He thought about all the people he felt he couldn’t stop from killing other people.
It wasn’t until years later, after his work as an Oak Lawn police officer summoned grisly memories of death, and led him to sit in a car by a cornfield with a gun contemplating suicide that he decided to ask for help.
Mental health wasn’t discussed when he deployed to Desert Storm, he said. In Iraq, he didn’t want to be seen as weak. Upon his return to the U.S., he didn’t mention the flashbacks, nightmares or trauma from the deaths he had seen. He just wanted to get home and hold his children.
For years, he said, “I did what I thought was right, and I buried it.”
Miller, 50, is among many veterans who have considered suicide or struggled with thoughts of self-harm.
For the first time, in this year’s annual survey of injured post-9/11 veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project asked veterans whether they had recently had thoughts related to suicide. One-third of the nearly 36,000 respondents said yes.
Struggling with anxiety or depression affects more than one’s mental state. Unemployed respondents cited mental health as the top barrier to employment.
According to the report, almost all respondents – 91 percent – had a severe mental injury; among those, 91 percent reported more than one issue, such as changes in sleeping patterns, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Erin Fletcher often sees such challenges in her work as the Project’s regional combat stress recovery director.
“You have your ups and downs. Some days are good; some days are bad,” she said. “We’re just hoping that you’re willing to stick out more of the bad days to get to the good.”
Although she said people are more willing to talk about mental health now than decades ago, a stigma remains, especially one assuming struggling veterans are “hanging by a thread.” She added that she often hears of people saying minimizing things like, “Well, it’s got to be better now that you’re home, right? It’s not like you’re in Iraq.”
“That is meant with the most love,” Fletcher said, “and it’s literally one of the top worst things to say.”
Instead, people can just listen. “You don’t have to solve it for them,” she said. “Just sit there in the moment with them, and let them share their experience.”
Veterans who served years ago in Iraq or Afghanistan might just now be getting treatment for trauma. “You could be 10, 12 years out of your service and just be willing to start counseling,” Fletcher said.
Melanie Mousseau, the Project’s metrics director, said they aim to see more people finding strategies to cope and manage symptoms related to depression or anxiety.
“It’s not a doom-and-gloom picture. It’s something to be managed,” Mousseau said.
Many options exist for treatment, from medication to counseling to newer therapies like equine therapy, or working with horses.
Miller, who lives in Joliet, served as a sergeant major and received multiple medals during his 25 years of service. After his deployments, he struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, tried to numb memories with alcohol and faced charges of DUI and aggravated assault, eventually graduating from a veterans court program.
The night by the cornfield, he held the gun to his head. He put it down when he thought about another veteran he had met, one who lost his legs and still had plans for marriage and becoming a father.
That guy had hope. And if that vet could have hope, Miller remembers thinking, why couldn’t he try to wake up one more morning?
He called Veterans Affairs. He began therapy, and now he journals.
“I realized I wasn’t the only one,” he said. “It doesn’t make me weak.”
He said he keeps adding to what he thinks of as a soul full of memories. People who come up afterward to say his Wounded Warrior speeches helped them. Photos on his phone with his daughter and son. Taking the dog to the park. Each relieves space from the heavier things placed there.
Miller fears his son, a 20-year-old Marine, will fight in the places he fought.
He tells him about the need to talk. That burying things does not make them go away.
“You’re taught in the military it is all or nothing,” he said. “You’re never told, ‘Hey, we might win today.'”
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