The head of the Minnesota National Guard today said his organization has been singled out for “unsubstantiated notoriety” over the number of military suicides.
Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general of Minnesota, told a joint legislative hearing today that suicide is increasing among the entire population, not just the military.
“Since 2007, 24 service members have died by suicide. Each circumstance was unique. Two-thirds had never deployed; that’s an important detail because it’s a common assumption that suicides are the result of post traumatic stress disorder. This is not true,” Nash said.
Minnesota National Guard’s 24 suicides are more than any other state, but Nash said only two suicides occurred among active duty soldiers.
“On the two days per month that the part-time force assembles, I can say with certainty, a soldier or airman at risk of suicide is actively engaged by his or her battle buddy or wingman. Our team is trained and ready to link that service member with the resources he or she needs,” he said.
Nash said so far in 2011, 34 National Guard soldiers have taken advantage of a program to intervene with soldiers who may be at risk of suicide. Nash was overcome briefly when he told of one soldier who came forward, “after spending the previous evening with a shotgun on his lap.”
Saying suicide is a statewide problem, Nash urged lawmakers to fund suicide prevention efforts. But he also said the Legislature should be looking at ways to eliminate some of the contributing factors.
“While I was there (in Kuwait last month) … we received data from soldier surveys that indicated 28% of that force would be facing unemployment challenges when they returned home. Other sources report… we continue to endure more than 12 percent of our veterans unemployed. Eighteen percent of the women in the Minnesota National Guard are unemployed.”
“Why are we unemployed after all this time serving our country?” he asked.
Greg Roberts of Bemidji , a sergeant who served in Bosnia and Iraq, told the committee that returning soldiers face the reality of a changed homefront.
“When you’re gone for nearly two years, you spend so much time thinking about home. It’s one of the things that keeps you going on bad days. When you get home, it’s not what you remember it to be. It’s the same, but you’re different. Being home is the second war nobody talks about. ”
Roberts said he didn’t get much of a chance to “meld our military lives and our civilian lives.”
“We got put on a bus, sent home, and that was it,” he said.
Roberts said he “drank profusely” for three or four months when he returned to Minnesota. “Nobody around me I can relate to, I didn’t feel like anybody understood what I was going through with the exception of my Army buddies I served with. Our experience was unique,” he said. “But I was not in a position to have contact with them. Due to the nature of PTSD, you avoid anything that reminds you of war. We all avoided each other and it created a situation where we’re all hurting in our own ways, we didn’t want anything to do with each other. The tragedy is they’re really the only ones who could help. They understood what I was going through and I understood what they were going through, but there was no contact. They’re the best resources for preventing suicide.”
He said the one day they didn’t all avoid each other was the day after a colleague killed himself.