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.

Saint Leo Offers Veterans A Free Transition Course

Tedd "Gunny"Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

Tedd “Gunny”Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

It’s difficult to define today’s military veteran. But there is one thing they have in common – they don’t like being painted with the same broad brush.

“Just because I’m a veteran, particularly me because I’m a Marine, a combat Marine, don’t think you know my political affiliation, my beliefs, my values,” said Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, short for Gunnery Sergeant. “There is a label and we want to shed that, we want people to know that we are our own person.”

After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Weiser has become a touchstone for the veterans at Saint Leo University where he’s now interim director of Veteran Student Services. He knows what it’s like to have difficulty moving into the civilian world, to hit rock-bottom with post-traumatic stress symptoms “starting to rear their ugly head.”

“It came to a point one day at a traffic stop. I actually put my car in park, got out of the car, ran up two or three car lengths ahead of me to tell the driver who cut me off six miles back what I thought of him and my wife said, ‘That’s enough,’” Weiser said.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser's door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser’s door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

He got help from the VA for his PTS and decided to pursue his passion and his faith which led Weiser to Saint Leo University where he’s working on two masters’ degrees in Religion and Instructional Design.
But Weiser said he found his true calling running the Veteran Student Services office and the student veterans appear to be responding.

When Weiser started as an assistant in December, he said they averaged about one to two veteran visits a week. Now, just weeks into the fall semester and more than 60 have come through the office.
To help with the veterans’ adjust to campus life, a team at St. Leo University including Weiser, developed an online, Veterans Transition Course.

They partnered with Corporate Gray, publishers of The Military to Civilian Transition Guide which is used by the Department of Defense. Saint. Leo created an online version.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our student veterans and their families knowing that their time is limited and their resources are limited,” Weiser said.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The course is broken into eight modules and is self-paced. So, it can take as little as eight weeks or as much as eight months to complete depending on a veteran’s needs. And the course is geared to more than academics. It also offers guidance on networking, interviewing, resume building and even negotiating salary and benefits.

Weiser encourages the spouses and adult children of the student veteran to take the online course too.

“Because if it helps them, then it helps that veteran because it’s one less thing that veteran has to worry about,” Weiser said.

About one-third of Saint Leo’s 15,000-to-16,000 students are veterans or active duty military and a majority are not on the Pasco County campus. Saint Leo University has a College Online as well as 40 locations, many on military installations, throughout the U.S.

“When others in the 70s were protesting military, Saint Leo went onto its first campus in North Florida and started teaching at a military installation,” Weiser said. “We just celebrated our 40th Anniversary last year.”
That anniversary generated donations that created another program Saint Leo’s Student Veteran Emergency Fund.

 Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd "Gunny" Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, "For Those Who Serve," that honors the men and women of the armed forces.


Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, “For Those Who Serve,” that honors the men and women of the armed forces.

Since January, Weiser says they’ve given more than 30 gifts ranging from $200 to $500 to help with a financial crisis. The student veteran fills out an application, answers some questions about their financial problems.

The circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Weiser said he tries to give the student veteran a response within 12 hours.

“We’ve given money for, just last week, cancer medications, day care, car repair, unemployment, food, utility bills,” Weiser said.

That isn’t the only gift St. Leo University Veteran Services is distributing.

Their online transition course was initially just for their students. But earlier this month, the course was opened up to all transitioning military and veterans for free whether they’re headed to Saint Leo University, another college or into the job market. You can learn more about the online Veterans Transition Course here.

 

3 Ways to Join Tampa’s Run for the Fallen this Weekend

R4F 2014 stdRun, walk, rally or volunteer and join the more than 3,000 already registered to participate in the 7th Annual Run for the Fallen Tampa Bay sponsored by the Tampa Area Marine Parents Association. Register here.

Ways to participate:

The Memorial Bike Rally honoring Gold Star Families is set Saturday, September 20, 2014. The rally point is American Legion Post 148, 7040 U.S. Highway 301, Riverview. Kickstands are up at 4:30 p.m. The destination is the Candlelight Vigil at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa.

The Candlelight Vigil Ceremony is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa. Prior to the ceremony, you can visit the Florida Fallen Memorial and barbecue dinners will be available for purchase between 5:30-7 p.m.

The Bike/Walk/Run for the Fallen is Sunday, September 21, 2014, at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa. Late registration will still be available from 7:30 – 8:30 a.m. A ceremony acknowledging the Gold Star families is at 9 a.m. Immediately afterward, the 10K, 5K and 1 mile events will begin.

For R4F questions or additional information contact  MarineFamilies.R4F@gmail.com.

Commandant’s Message for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans

Official portrait, uncovered, of the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. Gen. Amos is the first aviator in Marine Corps history to be selected for the post, and the first assistant commandant to be promoted to the position in more than 20 years. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

Official portrait, uncovered, of the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. Gen. Amos is the first aviator in Marine Corps history to be selected for the post, and the first assistant commandant to be promoted to the position in more than 20 years. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

There are a lot of patriotic messages on July 4th. Here are some words of encouragement specifically for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This comes from a portion of the talk, delivered by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, at the June 18, 2014 Change of Command at MARCENT – the Marine Command at U.S. Central Command based at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL.

Gen. James Amos:

Folks as I take a look and think about Central Command and think about the president’s planning guidance and strategic guidance of a couple of years ago, he was clear that Central Command is important to the United States of America.

He made a decision two years ago which all the commanders supported. We’re on this glide path to reduce the forces in Afghanistan.

We just went through the second set of elections. And I don’t need to tell you, but it’s impressive to me that it was almost, almost without incident.

So, if you think about what is our responsibility as a nation in Afghanistan is, and how we’ve done and gave ourselves a letter grade, I’d say we’ve done pretty doggone well.

We’ve got every reason to feel good about what’s been accomplished in that country and it was the same way in Iraq.

Iraq is going to play out however it’s going to play out.

But we as nations, we as the Coalition and the Joint Force sanctified the ground. We sanctified the ground in Iraq. And ladies and gentlemen, I’d argue that we sanctified the ground in Afghanistan as well.

There’s no harder command, no more thorny area than the Central Command. Bigger than the Continental United States, 522 million people, 20 different nations, seven major languages, and 12 major religions all in that area.

And on any given day it will keep General (Lloyd) Austin and his component commanders awake all night long. There’s no doubt about it.

A Happy 4th of July for those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and to those who served and as Gen. Amos said “sanctified the ground.”

You can listen to Gen. Amos’ speech at WUSF News.

Marine Commandant: We sanctified the ground in Iraq

The new MARCENT commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie just after the change of command ceremony, Hangar One, MacDill Air Force Base.

The new MARCENT commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie just after the change of command ceremony, Hangar One, MacDill Air Force Base.

Top U.S. military leaders responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq were in Tampa today for a change of command ceremony.

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie took over as commander of the Marines Forces U.S. Central Command (MARCENT) which means he now is responsible for all the Marines serving in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Presiding over the ceremony, held inside Hangar One at MacDill Air Force Base, was Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos who praised the success of the recent elections in Afghanistan.

The front row of dignitaries at the MARCENT change of command included US Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

The front row of dignitaries at the MARCENT change of command included US Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

“We’ve got every reason to feel good about what’s been accomplished in that country and it was the same way in Iraq,” Amos told the audience of more than 300, mostly military personnel. “Iraq is going to play out however it’s going to play out. But we as nations, we as the coalition and the joint forces, sanctified the ground. We sanctified the ground in Iraq.”

Amos said in his opinion that the joint forces also have sanctified the ground in Afghanistan.

Both Gen. Amos and new CENTCOM Marine Commander Lt. Gen. McKenzie declined to give specifics about Iraq and the recent surge of fighting by Islamic militants.

But McKenzie who is now responsible for about 6,000 Marines serving in the CENTCOM “Area of Responsibility” offered a perspective through the lens of the Afghan elections.

Silhouettes of Marines awaiting the ceremony frame the aircraft that brought top military leaders to the ceremony in Tampa, FL.

Silhouettes of Marines awaiting the ceremony frame the aircraft that brought top military leaders to the ceremony in Tampa, FL.

“What you see in Afghanistan is you’re seeing the Afghan National Security Force actually being able to stand up to the Taliban. A lot of people a year ago didn’t think it was going to happen,” McKenzie said.”There may be some lessons there that we can apply in Iraq. Don’t know. Two different countries, two vastly different problem sets.”

As commander of MARCENT, McKenzie will work for CENTCOM Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III. It’s similar to 10 years ago when McKenzie was led the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in southern Afghanistan in 2004 and Austin was his commander.

Tampa Military Parents Group Celebrates 10 Years

T.A.M.P.A. co-founder Cyd Deathe sewing pillows for deployed troops, April 2013.

T.A.M.P.A. co-founder Cyd Deathe sewing pillows for deployed troops, April 2013.

Ten years ago this week, seven parents met for coffee in Tampa. They had two things in common: they all lived in the Tampa Bay area and they all had a child serving in the Marines.

That coffee was followed by a pot-luck dinner and before she knew it, Cyd Deathe had become co-founder of the Tampa Area Marine Parents Association or T.A.M.P.A.

Despite its name, the support group is for all family members and friends serving in every branch of the military. Over its first decade, the support group has sent thousands of care packages to deployed troops and taken on dozens projects at home like supporting veterans’ families that fall through the cracks..

Their first big project was the pillow project. The idea came from Deathe’s son who requested a small pillow, about the size of a laptop computer, that he could rest his head on but was easily packed while on deployment. Thousands have been sewn and mailed to troops since.

“Our favorite story of the pillow,” Deathe said. “One Marine who went on three deployments who refused to let him mother even wash it because he didn’t want to lose that pillow.”10 YEARS_TAMPA

Members meet monthly and maintain a Facebook page as well as a website. Deathe said they plan to celebrate their 10th anniversary all year long.

The celebration kickoff is a picnic Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301. Everyone is welcome. You are asked to bring your own side-dish, the hot dogs and hamburgers are provided. But, Deathe said no one will be turned away.

In October, the Tampa support group will be represented by 50 runners in the 39th Marine Corps Marathon.

“For the first time in our ten years, we’re so excited, we were accepted as a charity partner by the Marine Corps Marathon Foundation,” Deathe said. “So, we have 50 bibs, some of them are already gone, but we still have some available.”

Even though her son is no longer serving in the Marine Corps, Deathe continued as executive director. It’s her way of serving her country as well as all those who have worn the uniform and their families.

You can listen to Cyd Deathe’s interview on WUSF Public Radio.

TAMPA 10 BDAY INVITE

Marine Lima 3/25 Company Memorial Exhibit Tours Florida

The artist's depiction of LCpl Timothy Bell, Jr, Sgt Justin Hoffman, and LCpl Nicholas Bloem from the Lima Company Memorial traveling exhibit.

The artist’s depiction of LCpl Timothy Bell, Jr, Sgt Justin Hoffman, and LCpl Nicholas Bloem from the Lima Company Memorial traveling exhibit.

Opening today, April 7, 2014, and staying for only three days in Tampa, Florida is an art exhibit that has become an iconic symbol for the men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Lima Company Memorial: The Eyes of Freedom exhibit features life-size paintings depicting 23 Marines from the small Ohio Reserves unit L 3/25 who were killed in action in 2005 in Iraq.

Mike Strahle served with Lima Company and now shepherds the exhibit around the U.S. He said the exhibit has a broader reach than just his generation.

“It is a great example of a traveling exhibit for this modern war on terror. I don’t even want to limit it to just this war,” Strahle said. “We have so many men and women that come in and see our exhibit from WWII, Korea, Vietnam (wars), and it’s just as moving for them as it is for the 25 to 35-year-olds that have fought in the current war on terror.”

The Lima Company Memorial was open for three days in Clearwater before moving to the Tampa USF Campus.

The USF Student Veterans Association is hosting the traveling exhibit which is set up at the Marshall Center. Marine Reservist Patrick Sweickart hopes the exhibit will bring closure to his fellow student veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There’s a ton of student veterans whether they were active duty going to school or Reservist or National Guard for Florida that while they were going to classes got called to order, called to serve, they had to leave in the middle of the semester and do a tour,” Sweickart said.

The Lima Company Memorial – Eyes of Freedom is free and open to the public.

The hours at USF’s Marshall Center – Ballroom C – are: Monday noon-8 pm, Tuesday 8 am-8 pm, and Wednesday 8am-4 pm.

The exhibit will then move on to Melbourne for a three-day stop before returning to Ohio.

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