Tennessee man works to raise awareness of veterans' suicide risk

By KRISTI L. NELSON | The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 23, 2015

Don Tipton doesn't know exactly where he'll be on the 22nd of each month.

But he plans to always be standing in a high-traffic area, holding a sign to show support for his fellow veterans — and to raise awareness of their risk for suicide.

Last September, Tipton, a Knoxville Fire Department employee who served 10 years in the Army and 14 years in the Air National Guard, traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to meet a man who stood out holding signs on the 22nd of each month, part of a national grass-roots initiative to bring attention to veteran suicide rates.

"I decided, let's bring it to Knoxville," Tipton said.

On Oct. 22, Tipton stood in downtown Market Square with posters and supporters. He's stood somewhere — from downtown Maryville to Kingston Pike — every month since. Usually, he's joined by anywhere from six to 12 people, "but if not, I'll stand here by myself," he said, laughing.

On Thursday, Tipton and six others stood at the intersection of Morrell Road and Kingston Pike outside West Town Mall, holding signs that bore the 24-hour veterans crisis hotline number: 800-273-6255.

People are generally supportive when they pass, he said, blowing their horns, rolling down their windows to say "Thank you," and occasionally even stopping to offer money.

"We have to tell them, 'That's not our purpose,' " Tipton said. "We're here just to raise awareness for the 22 veterans a day."

That number comes from a 2012 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study that suggests 22 veterans per day commit suicide — one every 65 minutes. The study looked at suicide data from 1999-2010 and found veteran suicides declined from 1999-2003 but increased from 2007-2010, with younger veterans disproportionately affected.

It's likely that estimate is low. The VA study looked at only 21 states — California and Texas not among them — and doesn't include some subsets of veterans. Other veterans' deaths might have been recorded as accidental or civilian deaths and therefore not counted.

A more recent study, set to publish in February's Annuals of Epidemiology, matched military records with the National Death Index, which keeps data on every U.S. death. That study looked at all 1,282,074 veterans who served in active-duty units from 2001-2007 and tracked them after service until the end of 2009.

That study found an annual suicide rate of 29.5 per 100,000 veterans — about 50 percent higher than the rate in the demographically similar civilian population.

The study also found veterans are most at risk of suicide in the first three years after returning from active duty.

"When you come back, it's just hard to decompress," Tipton said. "Some of the things you see, some of the things you do, that you're doing on a six-, eight-, 12-, 18-month rotation — you're just at a high stress level for that amount of time, and then you come home and everything's supposed to be back to normal, and it just takes a while.

"Talking to someone can help. You can only take so much. ... Eventually it's got to go somewhere."

Tipton said a stigma, reinforced by a military culture that prizes toughness, can be attached to seeking help.

"No matter how tough you are, or what you've seen, there's someone you can talk to who can help," he said.

The government points to numbers that suggest veterans getting VA services are less likely to commit suicide as evidence VA programs are working.

But Rod Myers, a 10-year peacetime Air Force veteran who came Thursday to hold a sign, said obtaining VA mental-health services can still be difficult.

"It's starting to get better," he said. "I think they finally see, with 22 a day, enough is enough."

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