Army chaplain helps military families affected by suicide

By Erin Kennedy

In the midst of sleep during a 2012 deployment to Kuwait, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley was awoken by a call from the Red Cross informing him that the brother of one of his soldiers had been murdered back home.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley, shown here in Kandahar, served with the North Carolina National Guard in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Army Chaplain (Capt.) Doug Windley, shown here in Kandahar, served with the North Carolina National Guard in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Windley, of the North Carolina National Guard, left his tent at 3:00 a.m. to wake the soldier, one of many times in the chaplain’s career that he was called upon to deliver grim news.

“I’ve never found a phrase or words that have the power to take away someone’s pain,” Windley said. “Just being present with them and not leaving them alone is the best thing to do.”

Windley’s experiences as a military chaplain in North Carolina and on deployment in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar have brought him to his work as a staff associate of the Survivor Care Team at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

TAPS, based out of Arlington, Va., is a 24/7 program that helps people who have experienced the death of a loved one in the military, regardless of their relationship to the individual who passed away.

As a chaplain on deployment, Windley served as a pastor for soldiers overseas. He performed religious services for soldiers who followed Christianity, as he did, and provided a place of worship for soldiers of other religions as well. Since returning to North Carolina at the end of 2012, Windley continues his work by marrying soldiers, being there for the birth of a soldier’s child, attending soldiers’ funerals, and helping soldiers adjust to life at home after returning from deployment.

“There are three phrases I always keep in the back of my mind as a chaplain: nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” Windley said.

At TAPS, Windley provides support and care to those left behind after a suicide by helping them through their grieving.

Since 2010, suicide has been the second-leading cause of death for service members, with war injuries at number one, the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC) found.

According to data collected over eight months by Arizona State University’s News21, veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population with about 49,000 taking their own lives between 2005 and 2011.

Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000. The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate, according to News21’s analysis.

Like TAPS, Cheryle Phelan, suicide prevention coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Prescott, Ariz., helps connect survivors with other survivors. When a veteran suicide occurs in the region of northern Arizona, Phelan calls the family to give them contact information for survivors in regional suicide groups.

“It’s different when someone dies from cancer or a different disease,” Phelan said. “When someone dies of suicide, family and friends are always thinking ‘What should I have done?’ ”

By connecting a newer survivor with someone such as an older veteran spouse affected by a military suicide in the past, the newer survivor learns how to cope better and is assured they can make it through the death, Phelan says.

“With suicide, it’s important that the survivors are around people that can really empathize with them,” Phelan said.

Windley refers to the process of new people and organizations offering support to survivors as the “address book changing.”

“Suicide is an enigma to many people,” Windley said. “I want to run to them to help in the moment; I want to run toward the fire.”

Calls to veteran suicide crisis line increasing

By Jeff Hargarten, News21

The Veterans Crisis Line, managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has experienced steady increases in calls, texts and chat sessions from former soldiers struggling with suicidal thoughts since its launch. Counselors have answered about 840,000 calls since the crisis line started in 2007, according to VA statistics.

Online chat sessions since 2009, and text messages since last year, also have increased.

“The phone has not stopped ringing,” said Jan Kemp, the VA national suicide prevention coordinator and program manager of the crisis line.

Crisis counselors fielded 9,379 calls in the first year. Each year the call volume has increased, reaching a high of 193,507 calls in fiscal year 2012. Through April 2013, more than 151,000 callers have asked for help. Chat sessions leaped from 864 in fiscal year 2009 to about 45,000 in 2012. Text messages also have exceeded 4,300 in this fiscal year, up from 3,800 last year.

Veterans Crisis Line Call Volume 2007 - April 2013

Kemp was skeptical that veterans would call the crisis line, she said. Now 800 to 1,000 calls daily reach the crisis line, she said, along with chats and texts.

A 2012 VA report found 19 percent of callers to the VCL call more than once per month and that most callers are male aged between 50 and 59. Also, the percentage of those thinking of suicide when calling the VCL has decreased, as have calls resulting in rescues from suicide attempts.

Initially calling it the Veteran Suicide Hotline, the VA found that veterans were less likely to call if they weren’t feeling imminently suicidal. The name was changed and that made a “huge difference” in the number of veterans using the line, Kemp said.

The line isn’t merely for those with suicidal feelings, but those experiencing any kind of crisis, Kemp said, to help head off possible future suicidal tendencies.

There are nearly 21.5 million veterans in the United States, according to the 2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The VA estimates 22 veterans die by suicide each day, according to a 2012 report. But officials said that rising suicide rates don’t indicate that the VCL is ineffective.

“We have to ask: what would the suicide rate be if we weren’t doing these programs? It seems like it might be worse,” said Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

The VA also started Make the Connection, a campaign that includes a website with information on common mental health symptoms and conditions, links to screening resources and a video series where veterans talk about their personal struggles.

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached online or by calling 800-273-8255.

What We’re Reading: Week 6

By Chad Garland, News21

What We’re Reading:

Navy uniforms are flammable, and military knows it (Dianna Cahn, 1/9, The Virginian-Pilot) The Navy’s standard-issue working uniform is not flame-resistant and “when subjected to a flame, it will burn robustly until completely consumed,” according to Navy findings released in December. A Navy spokesman said the service knew about this when designing the uniform, but had no requirement for a fire-retardant uniform. A Navy Times editorial estimates that phasing in a flame-resistant uniform could carry a $20 million price tag.

Can Service Save Us? (Joe Klein, 6/20, Time) Several service-based veterans groups are helping veterans find a sense of purpose in civilian life after returning from war. Organizations like Mission Continues and Team Rubicon give veterans an opportunity to apply their unique skills and experience toward improving communities through volunteer service and disaster relief.

“I Am Sorry That It Has Come To This”: A Soldier’s Last Words (Daniel Somers, 6/22, Gawker) Daniel Somers’ suicide letter describes his struggle with the trauma he brought home from war in Iraq, including PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Somers was a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee on as many as 400 combat missions in Iraq in 2004-2005. He was 30 years old when he took his own life on June 10, 2013.

Veterans key to medical marijuana lobby efforts (Sophia Tareen, 6/21, Associated Press) Illinois Governor Pat Quinn faces a decision whether to sign legislation to legalize medical marijuana in the state. The Democratic governor has placed veterans’ issues at the top of his agenda and veterans lobbying for medical marijuana legalization may sway his decision.

In Debate Over Military Sexual Assault, Men Are Overlooked Victims (James Dao, 6/23, The New York Times) As the Pentagon, Congress and even the White House grapple with the problem of sexual assault in the military, one aspect that has been largely overlooked is the fact that the majority of victims are men. Of the estimated 26,000 service members who experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, 53 percent are men, according to the Pentagon.

Facebook page memorializes suicide victims

By Chase Cook, News21

Mike Purcell is searching for 36,135 faces. He has found 2,109.

“Putting a Face on Suicide,” is a Facebook page that Purcell hopes will break the stigma surrounding suicide. The page features albums of 99 faces and allows family members and surviving families to grieve and remember together.

“You need to have some sort of remembrance of you,” Purcell said. “There is no shame in suicide…I didn’t want anyone not to be remembered.”

Purcell started the site after his son, Christopher Purcell, 21, died by suicide in 2008. Christopher was in the Navy and stationed in New Brunswick, Maine.

More active duty military died by suicide in 2012 than those killed in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. An estimated 22 veterans die by suicide daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nobody wants to talk about suicide, Purcell said, especially in the military where members are taught to “suck it up and move on.”

The Facebook page is full of activity, with families posting small memorials after someone dies or on the suicide victim’s birthday.

Albums posted sometimes have themes, such as the military tribute. The album shows veterans and active duty military personnel who died by suicide. Some photos are accompanied by notes from loved ones.

Karen Heisig submitted a photo of her husband, Maurice Heisig, who died by suicide in 2006. “Mo,” she called him, had left the service to take care of his ailing father.

“If someone had suggested that Mo would end his life, they’d have been laughed out of the room, despite the fact that his younger brother died by suicide in 1999,” Heisig posted on Facebook.

Purcell plans to continue running the Facebook page until he gathers all 36,135 faces, which means one album of 99 portraits for each day of the year. However, the site is on day 22 and has been active since January 2011. Purcell said he might have gone overboard, but running the site has its own rewards.

“Every day I get some sort of nice email from one of the families saying how much comfort and how helpful our website has been to them in their recovering from their grief,” Purcell said.

“It has been part of my healing to help these other families.”

Click here if you want to submit a photo to the Facebook page.

Walking for their brothers and sisters

By Chase Cook, News21

Top from left to right: Ruck Up members and Veterans AJ Paige, Nicholas Leone, Don Spencer, Eddie Brown and John Pajak pose for a photo with team member (bottom) Sue Barton, and Miles for Military  team member and veteran Angie Guss. These seven participated in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Washington, D.C. The 16 to 18-mile walk is held each year in a different city by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise money for suicide prevention efforts. This year's walk attracted about 1700 walkers and 300 volunteers. (Photo by Chase Cook, News21)

Top from left to right: Ruck Up members and veterans AJ Paige, Nicholas Leone, Don Spencer, Eddie Brown and John Pajak pose for a photo with team member (bottom) Sue Barton, and Miles for Military team member and veteran Angie Guss. They participated in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Washington, D.C. to raise money for suicide prevention efforts, which attracted about 1700 walkers and 300 volunteers. (Photo by Chase Cook, News21)

With the flag of the Green Mountain Boys — the Vermont National Guard — tucked into the straps of his backpack, Eddie Brown stands among fellow veterans awaiting their 16-mile walk.

Brown is part of the Ruck Up team, Veterans who have served in Panama, Macedonia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They all are in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to remember service members who died by suicide and to support veterans struggling with mental illnesses.

An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide a day, according to a February report by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Three of Brown’s comrades-in-arms have committed suicide since his last deployment three years ago.

Brown and other veterans say that one of the main reasons for suicide is a disconnect between those who fight and those who don’t.

“I hate to put this stereotype out there, but civilians don’t understand us,” Brown said. “We are our own little community, brotherhood.”

The Ruck Up team of five veterans came together for the overnight walk to not only remember the fallen, but to remind non-veterans that a community fought for their country and some now feel abandoned or lost among those they swore to protect. Ruck Up teamed with Miles for Military, which featured family members of servicemen, women and veterans who have committed suicide.

The walk took the two groups throughout downtown Washington, D.C., passing the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and other historical sites as they completed the 16-mile journey. They began at 7:30 p.m., and crossed the finish line around 4 a.m.

AJ Paige, a Panama and Gulf War veteran, walked for his fellow rangers who committed suicide. Paige thinks the estimated number — 22 veterans committing suicide a day — is higher. Veterans back from deployment are cast into the world without their battalion, their unit, their platoon, Paige said.

“The day you discharge, you are the most lonely person in the world,” he said. “It is like being cut off. It takes a long time for folks to realize they are not alone.”

One of the ways non-veterans and others can help veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts is to listen, those in the group said.

“We are not strange. We are not mutants. We are your brothers, your sons, your sisters, your moms, your dads and we aren’t any different than when we left, but we’re scarred,” Paige said. “If people aren’t willing to deal with that, we are going to continue getting lost.”

If you or a loved one know a military service member or veteran in emotional distress, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (Press 1).