One year ago I was the non-commissioned officer in charge of my battalion barracks for a 24-hour period. This was a task disliked by most sergeants, but we rotated the duty and it was my turn.
I had been home from combat for over a year and had gone just as long without witnessing tragedy. That afternoon, screams came from the barracks, and tragedy was back in my life. This isn’t just my story but the story of so many young soldiers returning from war. Active duty and veteran suicides have reached epidemic levels. In 2012 alone, more U.S. service members have died from suicide than from combat.
Sometime in the waning hours of the night, America lost a highly decorated combat veteran on my watch. I’d heard the same frantic screams from Afghan women in combat, but this came from the soldier’s girlfriend right here on the home front.
Suicide itself is not the problem; suicide is the tragic conclusion of the failure to address the spectrum of challenges confronting returning veterans. An American attempts suicide every 29 seconds, according to scholars, and veterans comprise an estimated 20 percent of all completed suicides — translating into 18 veterans killing themselves daily.
The Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defense are making headway, but civilian awareness remains a difficult battle. The military can identify those individuals with the highest risk for suicide, but they can’t identify those who will commit suicide in the near future. In part, that’s because the time between the suicidal thought and the attempt is usually about 10 minutes, suggests the American Psychiatric Associ-ation. This highlights the role our community has in becoming aware and highly accepting of mental health care among veterans.
Riley, Geary, and Pottawa-tomie counties alone have over 11,000 veterans, and many more active duty, National Guard and Reservists. Reviewing the 2010 census, we find that over 13 percent of our population claims veteran status. For all Amer-icans, suicide is now the third leading cause of death of 24- 35-year-olds.
Factoring a national average based on Centers for Disease Control and Department of Defense information from 2010, it becomes clear that following separation from active duty, veteran suicide rates are 23.1 per 100,000 in the first two years, 18.1 in years two through four, and 12.9 in years four through six (dropping below the civilian rate).
With the longest war in American history ending, many soldiers will separate from Fort Riley, and now we have statistics to show how important making that a smooth transition correlates to saving lives.
If not for Army suicide prevention efforts over the past few years, the Army believes rates may have potentially doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. For these results to be more effective, our community needs to become aware of suicide triggers or the potential “last straw” prior to the suicide.
A military task force identified in 37 percent of cases a failed relationship was a trigger; 21 percent work problems; 16 percent legal/UCMJ; and 6 percent financial. They also noted use of alcohol at the time of death was 19 percent.
This Veterans Day, I encourage you to enter this number into your phone: 1-800-273-TALK. It is the Veterans Crisis Line, and when we have only a 10-minute window to identify and prevent the loss of another American soldier, don’t hesitate to call.
Aaron Estabrook, an Army combat veteran, lives at 3317 Wood-duck Way.