A Veteran’s Voice: It’s Okay to Talk About Suicide

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

By Kiersten Downs

WUSF Veterans Coming Home Outreach Coordinator

Over time, the sharp and jagged pieces of a broken green bottle have been transformed into a smooth and beautiful beach gem that we call sea glass. While sitting in a circle with fellow mentors and mentees, we were asked by our group leader what was special about the sea glass.

My nine-year-old mentee raised her little hand and in a sweet and shaky voice said, “that it changed over time”.

This was the theme for the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors held this past weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

For those who are unfamiliar with the work of this incredible organization, TAPS provides immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to all who are grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. The 170 children who participated in the Good Grief Camp have lost a military loved one to suicide.

I am not alone in saying that participating in the Good Grief Camp, as a mentor was one of the most powerful volunteer efforts I have ever experienced.

A resounding theme repeated throughout the weekend that needs to be replicated not just at a suicide seminar but on our military bases is that “suicide is talked about here”. The existing stigma surrounding suicide gravely impacts those who have lost a loved one and silence on the subject also silences the living memories of those who have died, complicating grief even further.

We understand that not everyone is at the point where they can talk openly about what brought them to the camp, but by stating that “suicide is talked about here” we are letting them know that this is a safe place where they can honor the memories of their loved ones with people who care and often times share similar life experiences.

What I witnessed was a community of people coming together to help heal open wounds, some new and some long-standing. We painted together, we talked together, we cried together. We watched as kids were allowed to be kids.

My mentee left footprints on my heart and taught me one of the most important lessons of all time. On Sunday afternoon, after we watched as the ocean waves washed away the words that we drew in the sand – “bad thoughts” and “nightmares” – I asked her what she was going to take home from camp. Her reply was, “that things change with time and it’s okay to talk about it.”

For more information go to www.taps.org. If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1chat online, or send a text.

Military Suicide Survivors Gather at St. Pete Beach

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

This weekend marks the 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. About 500 adults and 170 children will participate in workshops, art therapy, and outdoor activities learning skills to cope with the suicide of a loved one who served in the military.

The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012:  more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat.

And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt.

And there was very little help or support for family survivors of military suicide when it hit Kim Ruoco’s family in February 2005.

After more than a decade of service, her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruoco, died by suicide. It turned Kim into an advocate.

“One of reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.”

It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot.

“His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.”

And Major Ruoco ‘pushed through it,’ successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005.

Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help.

She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day.

“By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.”

Her biggest concern was what do I tell their sons, Joey, 10, and Billy, 8.

“At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said.

A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors.

But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.”

“He said mom I think I killed Dad. I said what do you mean honey?” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.”

At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself.

TAPS_LOGOKim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children.

Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group.

But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband.

A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college.

Kim was invited to help TAPS create a support program for military suicide survivors. She’s now manager for Suicide Outreach and Education programs at TAPS.

“We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.”

She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide.

For more information go to www.taps.org . If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Remembering Prisoners,Those Who Never Came Home

Source: wikimedia.org

Source: wikimedia.org

Today, September 19, 2014, is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. By the numbers from the Department of Defense:

  • 1,641 personnel are missing and unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War
  • More than 83,000 Americans are missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War.
So, take a moment to honor those who remain missing and those who suffered starvation, isolation, fear, and uncertainty, during captivity.

MacDill Military Gives President Rousing Welcome

President Obama speaking to 1,200 service members at MacDill Air Force Base, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo credit: USMC Sgt. Frederick Coleman, US Central Command.

President Obama speaking to 1,200 service members at MacDill Air Force Base, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo credit: USMC Sgt. Frederick Coleman, US Central Command.

The pride of “wearing the uniform” was clear and present inside the MacDill Air Force Base sports center Wednesday where 1,200 service members from all branches crowded together to hear President Barack Obama.

Most were dressed in the everyday, camo uniform. They greeted the president with an enthusiasm that belied the rainy, gray skies outside.

President Obama talked directly to the men and women. He said he came to thank them for their sacrifice and for their commitment to the country.

Air Force Tech Sgt. Tanika Belfield appreciated the personal message in his speech.

Tech Sgt. Tanika Belfield liked the personal nature of the president's speech.

Tech Sgt. Tanika Belfield liked the personal nature of the president’s speech.

“The thing that stood out to me most is him making sure to speak of those who were wounded and that he knows that he’s in a room of people who have lost friends,” Belfield said.

The president told the troops he would not send them back to Iraq, but Belfield said she’s ready to go if called to Iraq.

“That has to remain fluid as the threats change and intel changes,” Belfield said. “We’re briefed and we’re prepared and we’re ready.”

Captain Darrell Rievs has served in the Air Force 26 years and has been deployed countless times throughout the U.S. In all that time, this was the first time he’d been in the same room with the president.

Air Force Capt. Darrell Rievs has served 26 years and been deployed numerous times, yet is ready to go again if needed.

Air Force Capt. Darrell Rievs has served 26 years and been deployed numerous times, yet is ready to go again if needed.

“It’s a great honor and very encouraging to the troops that he stopped by,” Rievs said.

He was pleased to hear the president refer to the military’s upcoming role in the fight against Ebola in Africa. And Rievs said he is willing to deploy again if needed.

“It’s just an honor to wear the uniform. If duty calls, I’m there,” Rievs said.

After meeting with the troops, President Obama visited Tinker Elementary School on base. He chatted with first graders and one asked if he fought in the Civil War.

“No, I was born in 1961.”

President Obama speaking to first graders at Tinker Elementary School on MacDill AFB. Photo credit: pool

President Obama speaking to first graders at Tinker Elementary School on MacDill AFB. Photo credit: pool

In Ms. Slagal’s class, the president shook hands with every student and admired the spikey haircut of one boy.

A little boy raised his hand and then, when the president called on him, couldn’t remember what he was going to say.

“That happens to me all the time,” President Obama said. “I think I have a good point, and then…. the press makes fun of me.”

The president spent the morning touring U.S. Central Command and discussing strategy with CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and his staff. They are responsible for 20 countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia including Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State group has seized territories.

The U.S. House has passed legislation allowing the president to arm and train Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants. But some Democrats are concerned that the strategy will backfire. But even without the support of dozens of Democrats, the proposal won House approval Wednesday. The Senate is expected to approve it Thursday.

By the Numbers: 128 US Airstrikes on ISIL

The U.S. Central Command has conducted a total of 123 airstrikes in northern Iraq against the Islamic militants referred to as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, centcomlogo

The area near Mosul Dam is the most recent target with three airstrikes over the past two days that destroyed vehicles and a mortar position near the dam.

A running summary, since CENTCOM began an air campaign to protect U.S. personnel and humanitarian efforts in northern Iraq:

– Defense of Erbil: 24

– Support of Sinjar: 13

– Support of Mosul Dam: 82

– Support of Amirli: 4

Total: 123

 

A Golden Age and New Leader for U.S. Special Operations

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

The significance of the U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, can be measured by the fact that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came to Tampa for the change of command ceremony.

“As a testament to the growing demand for special operators, Socom has grown by almost 8,000 people over the last three years,” Hagel told an invited audience of hundreds, most in military uniform. “And its growth will continue even as other parts of our military draw down.”

Navy Adm. William McRaven led Socom through the last three years of growth shaping the joint command into a global force.

“I believe that for the past several years, possibly without even knowing it, we have been and we are in the Golden Age of Special Operations,” McRaven told the packed ballroom at Tampa’s Convention Center. “A time when our unique talents as special operators are in greatest demand, a time when the nation recognizes the strategic value of our services, a time when all that we’ve trained for all that we’ve worked for all that our predecessors have planned for has come together.”

Hagel said McRaven’s most enduring legacy may be his effort to alleviate the strain of the relentless pace of deployments demanded of special forces.

Admiral William McRaven while serving as commander of the US Special Operations Command based at MacDill AFB, Tampa, FL. He has retired after 37 years.

Admiral William McRaven while serving as commander of the US Special Operations Command based at MacDill AFB, Tampa, FL. He has retired after 37 years.

“Bill established initiatives to address the physical and mental wellbeing of his force, offer support to family members and provide more predictability on deployments,” Hagel said. “He modified SOCOM’s definition of readiness to include families, families as a vital part of that equation. Something the entire Department of Defense can learn from.”

McRaven said Socom evolved after the 9-11 terrorism attacks and now has more than 67,000 forces ready in 92 countries. Their mission is to help stabilize areas of conflict, work with the State Department on everything from providing clean water to establishing rule of law and to take the fight to Al Qaida, the Taliban, ISIS and others.

While praising his special operators, McRaven added that they are no different than other service members.

“While our missions are unique – or special – we do not view ourselves as special people,” McRaven said. “We are no more courageous, no more heroic , no more patriotic, no smarter, no harder working than our brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.”

McRaven is retiring and will take over as chancellor of the Texas University System. His successor is Gen. Joe Votel , an Army Ranger, who vowed that SOCOM will always, always be prepared.

Votel is a West Point graduate, the tenth commander at Socom and now responsible for ensuring the readiness of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations Forces around the globe.

You can listen to a story on the ceremony on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Debt Relief for Military Victims of Predatory Lending

 Holly Petraeus with the CFPB Office of Servicemember Affairs.  Credit Photo by SSG Lorie Jewell, US Army. / Consumer Finance Protection Bureau


Holly Petraeus with the CFPB Office of Servicemember Affairs.Credit Photo by SSG Lorie Jewell, US Army. / Consumer Finance Protection Bureau

Some 17,000 service members nationwide and other consumers who were targeted by Rome Finance through unfair lending practices will not have to payoff their outstanding finance agreements according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and several state attorney generals.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a media release that more than 800 Florida service members were targeted by the predatory lending schemes and will receive more than $4 million in debt relief.

The bureau announced action July 29, 2014 against Colfax Capital Corporation and its subsidiary (formerly known as Rome Finance Co. Inc.) for engaging in unlawful lending that financially hurt servicemembers.

The company provided financing at places such as SmartBuy to sell products to military members. But the merchandise cost was inflated to “hide the true finance charges that servicemembers would have to pay, typically by military allotment,” Holly Petraeus wrote on the CFPB blog.

“This trapped servicemembers in contracts that generated millions of dollars for the company and substantial debt for its customers,” Petraeus wrote.

She called the enforcement action “the last gasp of a chameleon-like company with a long and deplorable record of preying on servicemembers.”

Whether they borrowed to buy computers or gaming systems military members and other consumers who used Rome Finance to make their purchases were victims of “predatory lending schemes.” While the servicemembers will no longer have to pay off their unfair loans, Colfax is in bankruptcy and does not have assets to repay consumers.

Florida consumers who suspect scams or fraud can file a complaint by calling 1(866)-9-NO-SCAM or by visit MyFloridaLegal.com.

Complaints about financial services or products also can be filed with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

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