Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

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5 Things to Know About Suicide: #1 Ask Straight Out

Photo courtesy of DCoE website.

Photo courtesy of DCoE website.

They’re called “responders” – the folks at the other end of the Veterans Crisis Line. But they aren’t the only ones serving on the front-line of suicide prevention.

As a society, as colleagues, as friends, as family, we cannot leave the work of suicide prevention to the “responders” alone.

It is up to all of us to act or at least “ask” if we see someone unduly stressed according to psychologist, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, deputy director of suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“If worried – asking people straight out saying, ‘I’m so concerned about how you seem to be, have you been thinking about suicide at all?'” Thompson advised. “It’s just that simple really to just ask the question that can be a very scary question.”

It’s time to stop being “scared” and start becoming informed.

Here are tips from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office website:

How to ask the question

There is no evidence to suggest that asking someone if they are having thoughts about hurting themselves causes suicide. When asking about this, be direct – for example, ask “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are things so bad that you’re considering suicide?”

Remember, if you never ask, there is no way to intervene and get the person help. Even if they aren’t thinking about it, they will know you are concerned about them and what they are going through.

You don’t need to be an expert

A common myth about suicide is that you can’t do anything if someone is suicidal because you’re not an expert. This isn’t the case. You don’t need to be an expert in psychological health to recognize when someone you care about is having a hard time.

Know the warning signs

The best way to prevent suicide is to recognize troubling signs. Some of the most common warning signs to look for in an individual include:

  • Expressing hopelessness, like there’s no way out
  • Appearing sad or depressed most of the time
  • Feeling anxious, agitated or unable to sleep
  • Neglecting personal well-being
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Losing interest in day-to-day activities
  • Frequent and dramatic mood changes
  • Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame
  • Feelings of failure or decreased performance
  • Feeling like there’s no reason to live
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Talking about death

Learn what to do

If you don’t ask, there’s no way to intervene and get help. Experts suggest the following advice for family and friends who suspect someone is suicidal:

  • Trust your instincts that the person may be in trouble
  • Be willing to listen
  • Ask direct questions without being judgmental (“Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Have you ever tried to end your life?” or “Do you think you might try to kill yourself today?”)
  • Determine if the person has a specific plan to carry out the suicide
  • Don’t leave the person alone
  • Don’t swear to secrecy
  • Don’t act shocked
  • Don’t counsel the person yourself
  • Get professional help on the phone or escort the person to a counselor, chaplain or other professional mental health provider
  • Remove potential means of self-harm

Know how to get help

Free, confidential help is available 24/7 through the Military Crisis Line (also known as the Veterans Crisis Line and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 800-273-8255 (military members and veterans press 1).

You can also online chat with a Military Crisis Line responder or send a text to 838255.

Even if there’s no immediate crisis, trained counselors can offer guidance on how to help someone and point you to services (for mental health and substance abuse) and resources (suicide prevention coordinators).

A lot of circumstances can contribute to mental health issues, but there’s help online.

Remembering Veterans Who Lost the Battle to Suicide

Courtesy of the Defense Centers of Excellence

Courtesy of the Defense Centers of Excellence

For many years there was no recognition, no ceremony to remember the veterans and active-duty military members who lost their battle to suicide.

No longer.

This week, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) is hosting a “Week of Remembrance.

It’s a chance for families and friends to remember their loved ones, service members and veterans who committed suicide, by posting a photo or a thought on Facebook.

“Week of Remembrance” coincides with Suicide Prevention Month, observed in September by the Defense Department and related organizations.

Along with the remembrance are resources to share with servicemembers and veterans who may be at risk of suicide or in need of mental health help:

Survivor assistance is available through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which  provides tragedy assistance to anyone who has suffered the loss of a military loved one, regardless of the relationship to the deceased or the circumstance of the death, and Sesame Street’s Military Families Near and Far, which offers resources to help talk to children about grief and loss.

Confidential support for military members is available 24/7 from the Military Crisis Line by phone 800-273-8255 (press 1), text 838255 or online chat

 

Seven Steps Fort Bliss Took to Reduce Soldier Suicides

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of Fort Bliss. Photo credit: army.mil

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of Fort Bliss. Photo credit: army.mil

There is no single solution to reverse the rise in soldier suicides.

In fact when Army Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard took over as commander at Fort Bliss, he came armed with a comprehensive approach reports Donna Miles for American Forces Press Service on military.mil.

Confronted by a spate of suicides among redeploying air defenders when he arrived at Fort Bliss in July 2010, Pittard launched the “No Preventable Soldier Deaths” campaign. The goal, he explained, was to prevent not only suicides, but also high-risk behaviors that can lead to drug overdoses, motorcycle and vehicle accidents, and other preventable fatalities.

That comprehensive campaign includes more than 30 different initiatives but all are focused on reducing risky behavior and creating a culture where seeking help is encouraged. Some of the steps taken:

  1. Pittard began assigning accountability for preventable deaths, holding leaders accountable for their soldiers, and soldiers accountable for themselves and their battle buddies.
  2. All new arrivals to Fort Bliss get comprehensive screenings at the Wellness Fusion Center.
  3. Pittard made the Army’s Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training mandatory for all incoming soldiers. Continue reading

VA Suicide Prevention Hopes to Involve Everyone

You don’t have to understand what a Veteran went through during their service or since they got back, what’s important is to be there for support and to know where to get help.

That’s the underlying theme of  “Stand by Them,” a new VA outreach program aimed at enlisting help of friends, family and colleagues to recognize when a Veteran is in crisis and get help.

Whether it’s sticking by a loved one in tough times, asking the right questions to make sure a veteran is doing alright, or reaching out if you’re concerned about a veteran you know.

“History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the wars have ended,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in a news release.  “The mental health and well-being of our brave men and women who have served the Nation is the highest priority for the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

The bottom line:  No matter what’s going on, support is available.

 

 

Suicide Is Not an Isolated Event and It’s Preventable

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses the audience at the fourth annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference June 22, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Clinical psychologist David Barry, a lieutenant commander with  U.S. Public Health Service, summarized the Department of Defense and VA Suicide Prevention Conference:

“Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the point that suicide isn’t an isolated event, and it’s preventable.”

Barry writes about the progress he witnessed at the annual conference and notes the support from leadership.

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for pioneering and breaking “new ground in understanding the human mind and human emotion”
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke of removing “any distinction between behavioral and mental health”
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs EricShinseki called to target and prevent substance abuse as a means to prevent suicide and veteran homelessness.

You can learn more about the Defense Centers of Excellence programs aimed at preventing suicide HERE.

Military Suicide: Study Offers Insight into Motivations

Photo courtesy of DCoE website.

Why does a member of the military attempt suicide? A new study of 72 active duty members who tried to kill themselves works to identify their motives.

Craig J. Bryan, a doctor of psychology, is associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and delivered his findings at the annual Department of Defense and VA suicide prevention conference.

The research breaks down suicide motives into four categories:

  • Emotion relief, or the desire to stop bad feelings;
  • Feeling generation, or the desire to feel something even if it’s bad;
  • Avoidance and escape, or the desire to avoid punishment from others or avoid doing something undesirable;
  • Interpersonal influence, or the desire to get attention or “let others know how I feel.”

Learning the “why” of suicide is essential to reducing suicide attempt rates, Bryan said. The American Forces Press Service reports:

After patients confronted the reasons they had attempted or considered suicide, Bryan said, “it was like a light bulb went on.” While all of the participants originally said they attempted suicide because they wanted to die, 95 percent acknowledged after selecting factors they realized they had not wanted to die, but wanted to end emotional pain.

“What this means from a clinical standpoint is we have to start integrating these behavioral [and] functional understandings of suicide attempts into our treatment,” he said.

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