A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

Seeking Solutions to Veteran Suicide

crisis_line_veteransVeteran suicide is a real and present problem in the community. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that on average 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

That’s a straightforward statistic for a very complex problem.

Calling it a growing and troublesome trend, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa organized a roundtable to discuss what is being done in the Tampa Bay area to prevent veteran suicide.

“The suicide rate among veterans age 18-24 has skyrocketed 70 percent during the past three years,” Castor told a gathering of about 50 mental health experts, researchers and veteran advocates at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

One thing Castor said she learned is that the group needed to be broadened to include active-duty military to help fight the stigma associated with asking for help.

Depression, financial debt, domestic disputes, a traumatic combat experience – any number of problems can contribute to a veteran feeling that suicide is the only way out.

Carmen Genovese, a licensed professional counselor with the Haley Suicide Prevention Team, said studies have shown that only 10 percent of veterans who commit suicide have been in combat and only 40 percent had deployed.

“The biggest problem I would say that keeps veterans from calling the Crisis Line is that they think they have to be suicidal or homicidal to call,” Genovese said. “That’s why they changed the name a few years ago.”

Genovese was among the mental health experts who attended the roundtable. Prior to coming to Haley, he worked at the Veterans Crisis Line in upper New York state.

Another item Castor gathered from the discussion is that the crisis line is for families and friends trying to get help for a troubled veteran.

“Families have got to understand where they can turn and it may not be a suicide. But it might be some economic challenge or a health challenge and there are folks who can assist,” Castor said.

She called on the attendees to share ideas and stay connected so they can maximize efforts to let veterans, active-duty military and their families where to get help.

Listen to a story from November 2013 featuring the HBO documentary that went behind the scenes at the Veterans Crisis Line and talked with the responders who field the calls for help.

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.

Military Suicide Report Shows Majority Non-Combat Related

suicide-preventionThe 2011 Department of Defense report found that 53 percent of the service members who died by suicide that year had no history of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Stresses of War

Reporter Sarah Childress looks at the complex issues behind suicide in the military in her story “Why Soldiers Keep Losing to Suicide” for PBS’s Frontline.

The military’s suicide problem seems to be rooted partly in the strain of war. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for 11 years, most of them while also battling a protracted insurgency in Iraq. Deployments for many service members were extended, sometimes up to 15 months.

The National Center of Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah is conducting a three year study on the link between military stress and suicide.

Military Action on Suicide

In addition to spending$50 million to study military mental health, Childress reports the Military is spending $17 million to find solutions unique to the military.

In the meantime, it has increased the number of behavioral health care providers by 35 percent over the past three years, both in primary care settings and embedded in units deployed to the front lines. The goal: to make sure every service member is screened for depression or suicidal thoughts, even when they’re just getting routine physical check-ups. The military has also expanded its crisis hotline to Europe, and plans to open one in Japan soon. (The number is 1-800-273-8255.)

Battling the Stigma of Suicide

The military culture rewards of resilience and has been less tolerant of mental health issues and suicide reports Childress:

… in May, a blunt blog post by Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander of Fort Bliss, Texas, summed up the sentiment that some victims’ advocates say remains pervasive in the military.

“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” Pittard wrote, in comments that have since been scrubbed from the website. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

The stigma is even harder on those who have not deployed because of guilt feelings so they don’t seek help for depression or other mental health issues.

You can read the full story “Why Soldiers Keep Losing to Suicide” HERE.

10 Signs a Veteran May Be in Crisis – Suicide Prevention

Even as a civilian, you can still be of help preventing suicide by learning the signs a loved one or friend may be in crisis or at risk of taking their life.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline advises that many Veterans may not show any signs of intent to harm themselves before doing so, but you can be alert to signs that the Veteran may need help. Be aware of signs of depression, anxiety and hopelessness as well as dramatic changes in behavior.

Signs of a Veteran in Crisis Continue reading

PTSD: A Beloved Brother Loses His Battle, Sister Carries On

A military family member works to spread the word about PTSD, her story was shared through Support Our Veterans.com:

My brother Shawn served 15 months in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He did make it home from the war, but I’m not sure his mind ever left it. He got married, adopted two children, and welcomed another in 2009. But PTSD took over his life, and he lost the battle on Feb 6, 2012. There was a struggle and the gun went off, killing him almost instantly.

I feel we need to get more involved in evaluating the men and women returning from war. Shawn struggled finding work, which I couldn’t understand. A man who knew what HARD work was, a man who picked up a task easily, who strived to always go beyond what was expected. He battled night terrors, and all the guilt associated with coming home after so many of his buddies did not.

I am so thankful he was able to come home. My regret is that our country failed one of our finest, we failed to help him in his time of need. I love you dear brother, and miss you greatly. I have vowed to spread the word about PTSD! Please seek help if you are struggling or know someone who is struggling. God bless our troops.

Elaine Barber
Ogden, IL

PTSD Resources for Veterans, Active Duty

Defense Centers of Excellence Out Reach Center: Call 1-866-966-1020 or email resources@dcoeoutreach.org. Provides authoritative information and resources 24/7 to Service Members, Veterans, and families, and those who support them.

Military Homefront: Resources for military families including a 24/7 phone line: 1-800-342-9647.

Give An Hour: A nonprofit group providing free mental health services to US military personnel and families affected by the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

National Center for PTSD: additional links to post traumatic stress disorder for the public, veterans, family and professionals.

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