Holidays and veteran suicide

By Vivian Blevins
Contributing Columnist

After being wounded three times in the Vietnam War, John Looker says, “I never considered suicide because my children needed me to get through life.”

Looker has worked with many war veterans and discusses two who for all his efforts, he was not able to save. One was “initially 10 percent disabled but got up to 100 percent disabled. He was shot up pretty bad in the stomach, shoulder and legs and never really came home from Vietnam. With his 100 percent disability, he could buy more drugs and alcohol. He owned a business and began drinking up all the profits from that.

“I worked with him for four years, and he’d call me in the middle of the night with nightmares and two or three times a day. I’d take him to the VA, and he’d check himself out the next day. One morning at 10 a.m. four years ago, I was with my wife’s mother who was ill while my wife was mentoring at a local middle school. He called and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m sh****** and p****** myself and can’t get out of my chair.’ I told him that my wife would be home in half an hour, and I’d be there. On my way to his house, I got a call from his twin sister that he had shot himself and was dead.

“We thought we had removed all the guns from the house, but he had hidden a Luger that we didn’t find. I spoke at his Catholic funeral about the good times and bad.”

Another with whom Looker worked, again a Vietnam War veteran and a former police officer, called Looker when he was at Gatlinburg for an annual visit with family. Looker reports, “I told him that I’d be home on the following Wednesday, but I got a call from the city manager that he had used his 22 handgun to kill himself. He didn’t want to make a mess, so he did it in a bathtub.”

Do you have upcoming plans for Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or another celebration that is a part of your culture, events that will include bringing together family and friends to celebrate what you value?

Are you aware that while you are eagerly anticipating these times, there are those among us who are sinking even deeper into depression, despair? With COVID and its variants, some fear traveling and gathering. Among us also are military men and women who are deployed around the world. And some veterans will be absent from our tables because they have taken their lives.

According to Associated Press reporters Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns, “The number of U.S. military suicide jumped by 15 percent last year, fueled by significant increases in the Army and Marine Corps that senior leaders call troubling.”

Baldor and Burns point to recent data that the Army National Guard troops increase in suicide was 35 percent, and the active Army increase was almost 20 percent. Research has “linked military suicide to a range of personal issues, including financial and marital stress.” Military leaders cite reasons as the COVID-19 pandemic, “continuing war-zone deployments, national disasters, and often violent civil unrest.”

The Pentagon reports that “enlisted male service members under the age of 30” are most at risk for suicide, and the most common method used is a gun.

So what are we to do?

I read regularly about the low pay levels of our military men and women at a time when few men and women in Congress have served in our armed forces. Let’s start by addressing that concern which should be easy as it is regularly called to the attention of these elected officials by the media.

Sexual harassment and assault in the military continue to be an issue, and we are aware of this and hopefully are getting better measures in place to address this.

Additionally, getting counseling is not readily accepted in the military. Role models in the military need to step up and discuss the benefits of therapy.

So who is doing what? There is a program in Warren County, Ohio, where Judge Timothy Tepe presides over a 17-month program for veterans who are incarcerated and want a second chance. A big part of the program is learning to live a life free of alcohol and drugs. According to Looker, who is a mentor in the program, these veterans “need an outlet, someone with whom to talk, veteran to veteran, about things they’ve done in war and problems they are having like keeping a job.” He sees graduates of the program as people who are “friendly, respectful, and back on their feet with a return to normal life.”

And Warren County has 20 concerned citizens and veterans who on Dec. 10, 2021, will hold their first meeting to design a mission statement for a coalition to help prevent suicide with a focus on veterans. As Looker indicates the reason for this coalition, he says simply, “22 a day.” For those unfamiliar with this statement, it’s the number of suicides among veterans each day in the U.S. And as I indicated earlier, this number is going up.

Looker says that getting to these veterans means being aware of the signs: “depression, anger, living in a different world, and never having returned mentally and emotionally from a war zone.”

Looker is involved in another group called “Blue Skies for Guys and Gals.” The target audience is Purple Heart veterans, Gold Star families and families of first responders who’ve lost a family member to suicide, but that’s another column for another day.

In conclusion, you have a “to do” list for your special celebration. Scratch some inconsequential items from that list and add the following: Research materials online to learn the symptoms when suicide is threatening and print lists of resources available. Get family, friends, and professionals involved with interventions. Make this year’s celebration joyful, and know that you might make a positive difference.

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.