— METHUEN, Mass. — A combat veteran’s suicide in this city on Jan. 15 shows the challenge the military faces as men and women return home from extended tours of duty.
The sergeant first class was an active duty member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. He was 50 years old and married with two children. He was a veteran of two combat tours.
National Guard officials did not return calls seeking details about his service, but the sergeant's case illustrates at least two reasons why veterans advocates say suicide rates are increasing among returning service members:
More are serving multiple combat tours, and the heavy use of reservists means more leave behind spouses and children when they serve overseas.
At the same time, the military's mental health services are overwhelmed.
“It’s becoming obvious to everyone we’re in a crisis mode here,” said Linda Dean Campbell, a state representative from Methuen who served in the Army, along with her husband. “The current statistics are unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for us as a nation, and we need to move quicker to address this crisis.”
Earlier this month, the Associated Press obtained figures from the U.S. Department of Defense showing 349 active duty military personnel committed suicide last year, the highest number since the Pentagon started closely keeping track in 2001. By comparison, 313 Americans died last year in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
The number of military suicides has spiked since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, when the Pentagon reported 160 military suicides, and Iraq in 2003.
Defense officials have struggled to deal with the suicides, which outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said the suicide rate is "staggering." She said she has introduced bills to train college counselors to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and require reporting from the Department of Veterans Affairs on mental health vacancies.
“Over the past few years, the Department of Defense has instituted a series of programs and services geared towards preventing military suicides, but a recent study showed inconsistencies among the services in the programs provided,” said Tsongas. “Like the critical matter of sexual assault in the military, suicides are reflective of a military culture that is in need of change. Programs and services must be instituted in addition to working to show that seeking help is not a weakness and working to reduce the stigma of asking for help.”
Tom Hargreaves, director of veterans services for the city of Methuen, said his office tries to make first contact with returning members of the military. It sends welcome home letters and invites recent veterans to visit. But because of privacy laws, the office is not always notified when servicemen and women return home.
Hargreaves' office and others like it throughout Massachusetts provide information about services available to veterans for education, job searches, state and federal benefits, and health care. Hargreaves said his office recommends veterans sign up for VA health care, provided by the federal government to all veterans and service members.
Francisco Urena, commissioner of veterans services in Boston, said his staff performs a series of assessments on each veteran who visits the office. "Not in an invasive way," he said, "but in a conversational way, to see how their family welfare is, how they are doing."
Oftentimes, returning service members won't ask for help themselves.
In a 2008 study, researchers with the Rand Corp. found barely more than half of veterans exhibiting symptoms of major depression or post traumatic stress disorder had sought help from a physician or mental health provider in the previous year.
Campbell said the stigma associated with acknowledging the need for treatment and seeking it prevents many service members from getting help that could save their lives.
The military is trying to eliminate that stigma in addition to other suicide prevention efforts, which include increasing the number of behavioral health care providers and studying ways to mitigate suicide-related behavior, said Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Last year, the Pentagon created the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which oversees suicide prevention and resilience programs, including prevention efforts administered by each branch of the armed services, she said.
In Massachusetts, the National Guard has worked with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to train its members to notice in their colleagues warning signs of suicide such as depression or increased alcohol use, and to encourage them to get treatment.
Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics also offer services for depression, PTSD and other related issues. But Campbell said the VA is overwhelmed.
“The VA itself has acknowledged they can’t keep up with the demand in terms of veterans reaching out to the system,” she said. “They’re putting more resources into this need, but it’s difficult for them to keep up.”
Douglas Moser writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.