Charlie Foxtrot: Veteran suicide is a growing military crisis

Beating military suicide

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- The sights in any national cemetery always evoke certain emotions; reverence, respect, sorrow, and pride.  They should not be a place for shame.

But a growing number of men and women are buried there because shame and fear became part of their lives in the military.

"He had wounds that weren't visible," said Deborah Johnson, president of the Gold Star Mothers of Arkansas as she visits her son at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock. Sergeant Jeremy Johnson is buried there after taking his own life in March 2010. The 25-year-old was transitioning out after a year-long tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan. While stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, he killed himself despite being on suicide watch and prescribed medication for depression and anxiety.

As a chapter president of an organization made up of mothers whose men and women died while serving in the military, Deborah Johnson knows there are different kinds of sacrifice. She also knows some of the attitudes that exist about the way her son died. 

"It's a coward's thing to say that you're weak," she said. "Soldiers are supposed to be strong. Big boys don't cry."

To fully recognize veterans and the great sacrifice they’ve made also means we must face the dark side of war.

The Johnson family is part of a growing crisis in the military, where too many veterans return from war or deal with the battles on the field, by choosing to take their own lives.

The reasons are many, and often it’s the end result of how they feel the military treats and deals with their mental health.

Johnson appears to have been caught in what old soldiers would call a Catch-22.

Modern warriors refer to it as a "Charlie Foxtrot." The phonetic alphabet for the letters "cf," which stands for "cluster f---."

"The bottle was found in his room. They were his wife's pain pills," said Johnson’s mother.  "I don't think he was taking the medication he had been prescribed. Because he was on a watch, someone would check on him every hour. But that's all they would check."

Johnson was taking part in a program for all soldiers returning from a warzone. They go through group therapy sessions, and his superiors recognized he needed something more, based on the prescription he received. But that's where the mental health care ended. He would die in a single room by himself, despite sounding alarms four days earlier when he sent his mother a text saying "this is good-bye."

"That Sunday, we had a conversation with his commanding officer," said Deborah. "Basically, he apologized and said that they had failed our son."

Johnson's suicide is one of thousands for veterans of America's wars since 2001. The widely cited rate puts it at about 20 vets a day. Most are Vietnam era service members, but the numbers of recent vets is reaching a crisis.

The growth comes despite advances in mental health treatment and improved medical care outside the military.

And here's where the Charlie Foxtrot becomes apparent. 

The military can't run if it allows suicidal thoughts in the ranks. Service members are trained to get past that fear despite the horrors of war. So in the military's eyes, the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who admits fear runs afoul of both codes of conduct and a spirit that keeps fighting units together.

And if a person succeeds in taking their own life, the thinking goes, "Well, they took the coward's way out" or "They left behind their brothers."

Overcoming that stigma has become the mission for people like Little Rock attorney Chris Attig. He is a retired U.S. Army captain who specializes in veterans' cases and their fights with the Veteran’s Administration.

More and more, he is hearing from experts that these mental problems are war injuries and should be treated as such, but the military and the V.A. can't shake institutional norms.

"There is the stigma from military service that says we're team oriented, Attig said. "We're mission oriented, and leaving your team is, for one, a crime and then too selfish in a lot of ways."

Attig makes his living navigating a bureaucratic maze to help vets get claims and benefits. He said a similar effort will be required to conquer the suicide crisis.

"There is a significant problem with how the VA treats mental health," he said. "They throw drugs at it. It takes, on average 26 days to get a veteran in for a comprehensive mental health exam."

Those 26 days can be so dangerous for the veteran in crisis.

Attig does see signs it can be changed, thanks to veterans groups that know what to look for and want to find the men and women at risk.

"I'm in a group called Team Red, White, and Blue," he said. "This is a group of veterans and non-veterans that basically create a connection to a community. They say come into our group. We're going to go outside. We're going to walk together, we're going to run together. We're going to talk. We're going go out and be active together.' It's that connection that shows the best signs of preventing that vet from suicide. If he's connected to something like a church or a social group of some kind."

Military brass are listening to family members like Deborah. She often consults with local commanders at places like Little Rock Air Force Base and Camp Robinson.

"I'm not smart enough to tell them how to fix it," Johnson said. "But to me the key is to try to find the few soldiers that need more intensive therapy. It's a big problem, and I think they're working on it.  It's just so big that it's hard to see any progress.”

 

For more information or more Charlie Foxtrot stories, see our CF section.  There you will also find a link petitioning Congress to do more for veterans. 


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