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Casualties of war

"Casualties of war" Continued...

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

The Pentagon and the Veterans Administration are investing $100 million to study suicides. To fight the stigma against mental illness, the Army began embedding behavioral specialists within units so soldiers have easy access to mental heath experts they can get to know. The Air Force is putting mental health professionals in the same clinics as primary care physicians. That way, its military personnel may not know what type of doctors their colleagues are seeing.

The Army has increased its mental health professional staff by 35 percent while the VA has a goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health providers by the end of June. (A January report showed that about 950 veterans receiving VA care attempted suicide each month between 2008 and 2010. Another VA study found that 30 percent of high-risk mental heath cases did not receive the promised follow-up visits.) The agencies bolstered the capacity of crisis hotlines such as Vets4Warriors and its collection of suicide prevention programs with acronyms like the Marines’ RACE (Recognize, Ask, Care, Escort).

They’ve thrown so many programs and initiatives at the problem that the Pentagon’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which opened in 2011, found 900 suicide fighting activities across all departments. This fall the office will finish its inventory and promises to streamline suicide prevention. Meanwhile, military families are confused about where to turn for help.

Soon after his second deployment ended, Tom Bagosy began having suicidal thoughts. Katie and Tom once fought in the kitchen over a gun. He won the struggle and drove off in his truck only to return later that night acting calm. The next day the family drove to the White House for the annual Easter Egg roll. As Tom battled suicidal thoughts, he argued with his doctors over treatment. He told Katie that he felt like nobody listened to him. When he caught Katie trying to hide his ammunition, he shrugged it off: “I have ammo all over,” he said. “So don’t even try.”

On Mother’s Day in 2010, Tom told Katie he had done what he was supposed to do by bringing his two children into the world and serving his country: “It’s time for me to step back and let some other man take over my family.”

The next day, Tom appeared calm and drove to Camp Lejeune, N.C. Katie called Tom’ base psychologist. Officials decided to put Tom in a treatment facility. Tom seemed cooperative while waiting for an escort to take him to the hospital. But those watching him let their guard down, and Tom bolted out the door. A group of Marines chased after him. Tom reached into his truck and pulled out a gun. He pointed it at them. As they backed off, Tom drove away. A few minutes later, with Military Police in pursuit, Tom stopped his black Sierra GMC truck in the middle of the road and shot himself with a pistol. He was 25.

“I don’t think he wanted to die,” Katie said. “He didn’t want to feel the pain. I probably wasn’t thinking the way I should have been thinking. It was a very intense, emotional time. To me it is still the war that killed him.”

SOME NON-PROFIT GROUPS are trying to help family members after suicides. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) provides free peer-based emotional support groups, seminars, and retreats for adults and a “Good Grief Camp” for children. This Memorial Day weekend more than 1,000 survivors in different stages of grief will come to the nation’s capital for the TAPS’ annual conference.

The attendees will include Don Lipstein. The first three months after his son died, Lipstein felt frozen. He’d wake up, breathe, and, at day’s end, not recall much of anything he had done. But at TAPS events he found people who had experienced the same loss. They felt safe enough to laugh together one minute and cry the next. “People don’t look at you like you are crazy,” Lipstein said.

Determined to honor his son by finding something positive out of the tragedy, Lipstein became a peer mentor coordinator for TAPS. He matches those newly mourning a military suicide with those who lost a loved one and are farther along in their grieving journey. “Two years out from Joshua’s death I can say that I am able to put my story behind me and focus on other people’s stories,” Lipstein said. “The pain doesn’t go away, but it does become a little bit easier to deal with.”

Some groups are also joining the battle, determined to ensure that the spiritual element of healing isn’t ignored. Inside the military, Army chaplains set a goal of having 50,000 soldiers and family members attend “Strong Bonds” marriage retreats over the final three months of 2012. With the National Guard responsible for more than 50 percent of those who fought in recent wars, the Oregon National Guard is part of a pilot program, “Partners in Care.” It matches area faith-based organizations with Guard and reserve units.

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