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War veterans suffer high rate of suicide deaths

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Suicide... The Silent Killer (Last in a series)

By Kayla Swanson and Stephen Thomas

 Troy Yocum doesn’t remember much about his grandfather, Sgt. Joseph Leake.

Leake served in the Army Air Guard for four years during World War II before returning to civilian life at home.

When Yocum was only two years old, Leake died by suicide in 1981 after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder for over 30 years.

“He struggled with PTSD before it was a defined condition,” Yocum said.

Barbara Kaminer, suicide prevention coordinator for the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville, said PTSD, like any other mental disorder, could lead to suicidal thoughts.  

“Many veterans are coming back with that diagnosis, those signs and symptoms,” she said.

Kaminer also said 22 veterans and 22 to 26 active duty military die by suicide each day.

The risks for death by suicide for a veteran or active duty military are similar to those for the general public, Kaminer said.

The increased use of alcohol and drugs after returning from deployment, irritability and anger are also factors more common for the military and veteran population, she added.  

Kaminer added that there are many military personnel who are never deployed that deal with suicidal thoughts.

“When they can’t go with their unit, it affects them,” she said.

To help veterans with suicidal thoughts, Kaminer said a suicide prevention coordinator and case manager is at every VA medical center nationally.

The Louisville center also has suicide prevention groups for veterans, which Kaminer said focus on a theory created by Florida State University professor Thomas Joiner.

Joiner believes a perceived sense of burdensomeness, a lack of belonging and the capacity to kill are all needed for someone to kill themselves and Kaminer said these three factors fit well with the veteran and military population.

Since starting the groups, Kaminer said it gives them a place to talk and help other veterans, decreasing their sense of burdensomeness and increasing their sense of belonging.

“You can’t easily eliminate them (suicidal thoughts), but you can stop the behaviors,” she said.

Yocum, who is also a veteran, used his grandfather’s story as inspiration for forming Active Heroes, a Hillview charity committed to serving active duty military, veterans and their families.

“Our main objective is to help these families live,” he said.

Active Heroes provides financial assistance, home repairs and physical activities for the families they help. Yocum said they’ve repaired 25 homes so far and will repair five more this year.

The organization is also planning to build a retreat center in Kentucky for veterans and their families to help them heal from mental health issues like PTSD.

“We want to provide an escape for these families,” Yocum said.

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Read part one of the series here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

Read part four here.

Read part five here.

Read part six here.