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Foon Rhee: Military tries to win war against suicides

Six years since her oldest son took his own life while serving in the Navy, Melinda Pickerel still relives the shock.

“It’s always with me,” she says. “It’s an extreme trauma. As a survivor, you don’t realize how much trauma.”

It’s an intensely painful and personal experience that more and more military families are having to endure. Suicide took more lives of active-duty service members last year than did the war in Afghanistan. The 349 suicides were up 16 percent from 2011, and double the number in 2001.

This year, however, suicides in the military are down 22 percent through late October, the first decline since 2004. While there are worrisome long-term trends, it’s a glimmer of hope that a massive escalation in awareness, prevention and support is starting to pay off. Just maybe, spouses and relatives, fellow soldiers and commanders are all spotting warning signs earlier; service members are more comfortable seeking help; and trained professionals are available when they do.

If it’s real progress, it’s in the nick of time. President Barack Obama has called for ending “this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.” While that may be overstating the situation a tad, suicide is clearly another cost of our post-9/11 wars.

The root causes of the suicide spike, however, aren’t entirely clear. Some researchers suggest that combat stress and repeated deployments can aggravate risk factors such as mental illness, substance abuse, financial troubles and failed relationships. Yet, half the service members who killed themselves in recent years never set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan, and most did not see combat, according to the Pentagon.

All branches of the military have ramped up efforts to prevent suicide and treat mental illness. The Pentagon expanded a successful crisis phone line, distributed more than 75,000 gun locks and hired more behavioral health care providers. It increased training and counseling to reach at-risk service members.

The danger, however, can linger for years after they leave the military. According to government estimates, 8,000 veterans kill themselves each year, accounting for 1 in 5 U.S. suicides. That estimate is likely too low since it is based on incomplete data and does not include numbers from California and Texas, the two states with the most veterans. Those who have just left the military, with its camaraderie and structure, are especially susceptible. So are female veterans who were victims of sexual assault. Veterans 50 and older – including Vietnam vets who have never been treated – are considered at highest risk.

For Suicide Prevention Month in September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hosted community events across the country and launched a new public awareness campaign encouraging friends and family members to intervene. The VA says it has hired 1,600 additional mental health professionals and 800 peer specialists to keep up with the surge of veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues – 1.3 million treated in 2011-12, up 400,000 since 2005-06.

The growing attention goes beyond the VA and Pentagon. For Veterans Day last month, the American Psychiatric Association also made a major public education push, including an ad featuring former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose own family has experienced suicide. “It’s up to all of us as members of the American family to embrace our veterans so they stop suffering in silence,” he urges.

Sometimes, though, everyone’s best efforts aren’t enough.

Losing a child in combat is excruciating. Yet, some solace comes from receiving condolences from politicians and neighbors, and from at least knowing the cause. Suicide can still carry a stigma, however, and the reasons may never be fully known. So the experience for loved ones can be even more shattering and lonely. Perhaps, only another parent who has gone through it can truly know what it’s like.

That’s where the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and those like it step in. TAPS, a 19-year-old program for military families, took in more than 4,800 new survivors last year, a 46 percent increase over 2011. More than 3,000 family members affected by suicide are in the program, about 20 to 30 percent of all cases.

TAPS spokeswoman Ami Neiberger-Miller says that despite this year’s welcome decline in military suicides, the battle is far from over. “It takes all of us talking about prevention and support for those who need help, to encourage them to get it,” she told me. “If a service member had a broken leg, no one would expect for that person to keep soldiering forward and to not seek medical treatment.”

Pickerel is a mentor for TAPS, which holds several events in California each year. For a year, she has been helping a Sacramento-area woman whose Army son killed himself. They text each other, get together on weekends and in April attended a parents’ retreat in Monterey. They’ve become friends, so they plan to stay in touch after their official mentoring ends.

“The first year of your grief journey is always the hardest,” Pickerel told me. “You’re just numb.” TAPS says it can take five to seven years to reach a “new normal” in coping with a loved one’s death.

While some experts say that focusing too much attention on suicides can backfire because it can be the tipping point for some already thinking about killing themselves, others strongly believe that more public awareness is essential.

Pickerel, 55, who lives in Colfax and works for the state Senate’s international relations office, is among them. She’s also on the board of the Sacramento area chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which last weekend held its 15th annual International Survivors of Suicide Day, timed just before Thanksgiving because the holidays are often especially painful.

Pickerel can’t help but think if fellow sailors had known the signs of depression and if more help had been available in 2007, her son Charles Parsons might still be alive. He was 27, had been in the Navy for eight years and was stationed in Georgia. While she knew he was having some struggles, he always said he was fine during phone calls home. When she found out he had shot himself, it was a piercing blow.

The grief is deep whether a loved one is killed by a bomb on a dusty road in Afghanistan, or by a bullet from his own gun.

“They didn’t die in action, but they still died in the service,” Pickerel says. “The families are still proud of them. How they died – does it matter?”