The holiday season sees an increase in the number of soldiers, veterans and even civilians who either contemplate or attempt to kill themselves, according to veterans service officers and peer network leaders working to bring those numbers down.
“The big thing with suicide — and I deal with this myself — is loneliness,” said Tony Smith, Coryell County veterans service officer. “These (soldiers) get here and, yeah, they may have made a lot of friends on post, made a lot of friends out in the community, but a lot of those friends are gone at this time of the year on (vacation).”
Smith said he receives more calls from people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts during the holidays, regardless of the holiday.
“I’ve been to a lot of calls and a lot of suicides,” he said. “I get 3 a.m. phone calls, calls at 4 a.m. or 1:30 a.m. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen at least five (attempted suicides). And (those cases were) because they don’t have the money to go home for the holidays. They get to drinking, start thinking about stupid things.”
Smith said he’s been called to at least 15 suicide attempts since the beginning of November, and those are just the calls he’s had for places such as Copperas Cove or Gatesville, the area he primarily serves as a Coryell County VSO. The calls were for both active-duty soldiers and for veterans.
Fort Hood has recorded at least 13 confirmed suicide cases in 2016 before Christmas, with four other cases pending. By March 2016, the total Army, which includes National Guard and Reserve, had already reported 64 suicides, according to Army records.
Smith said that while younger soldiers contemplating suicide may be suffering more from loneliness, he’s noticed that the more seasoned soldiers with deployments under their belt are usually brooding about things they have seen while overseas.
One of the reasons for the high numbers of suicides and attempts in the Greater Fort Hood area is a lack of knowledge about the amount of help available to soldiers and veterans, said Maureen Jouett, executive director for a peer-to-peer network called Bring Everyone in the Zone in Killeen.
Bring Everyone in the Zone provides peer support network groups for veterans of all wars, groups for those dealing with military sexual trauma, groups for soldiers who may not have seen combat but are still having a difficult time dealing with military issues and even groups for surviving family members of someone who has committed suicide, Jouett said.
The former Killeen mayor said when it comes to identifying someone who could use help from those groups, people should never be afraid to ask a person if they are thinking of suicide.
“You’re not going to put an idea in their mind,” Jouett said. “If they were thinking about it, the thought was already there. If they weren’t, asking won’t make them all of a sudden think about killing themselves. That could save their life.”
When soldiers and veterans get the opportunity to discuss their problems with peers, it has been proven to be more successful to their well-being than discussing it with professionals with no similar experience, she said.
“Because peers served in the military, you can identify with each other. Many times, they have been there and done that, too.”
The more the public is educated on the issue of suicide, the better, Jouett said.
“There is a problem with suicide. I would say that instead of avoiding the subject to spare a family’s feelings, the families should look at this as a way of helping another family to avoid having to go through the same thing they are,” she said.
And the holidays are the perfect time to remind people of the suicide problem, especially in an area surrounding a major military installation with a huge population of soldiers and veterans, Smith said.
“My big concern is, we put soldiers through basic (training), we train them on how to fight and be soldiers, and we train them how to get ready for a war — of any kind,” said Smith, a retired Army first sergeant. “Whether it’s a war, a conflict, anything like that — we prepare them. In a sense, when a soldier is ready to get out (of the Army), the main thing we need to do is ‘download’ them and get them ready to go back out into the civilian world.”
And while the Army does its best to give soldiers time to retrain themselves into the civilian sector, smaller units often don’t have the opportunity to ensure soldiers have the necessary time, he said.
Often, he is called to help recently separated veterans who returned from places such as Korea and were given only a short period of time to complete all the tasks necessary to transition to a civilian life.
“Three days is not enough time to clear,” Smith said. “Then when they get out, they figure out they have problems they never knew they had because in the military, they are around all their buddies and their buddies are there to help them cope with those issues.
“But when you get out into the civilian world, your buddies aren’t there,” he said.
The Army, and Fort Hood locally, is doing its best to help come to grips with the number of suicides, said Fort Hood spokesman Christopher Haug.
And according to Fort Hood officials, “Fort Hood has and always will take suicide prevention seriously. Our soldiers and their families expect that we will take care of them on and off the battlefield. We have worked hard to erase the perceived stigma that a soldier will ruin his career if he tells someone he is having problems.”
There are many resources available to soldiers and family members who want to seek help for any reason on post, Haug said.
The Army has also instituted a multilevel, holistic approach to health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention that accounts for the many challenges soldiers, their families and Army civilians face, such as substance abuse; financial and relationship problems; post-traumatic stress; and traumatic brain injury.
“There is no typical profile of suicide deaths — this tragedy affects soldiers throughout the ranks,” he said. “Every suicide we investigate has a unique set of circumstances that bring someone to that decision, just as it does in communities throughout America.”
Smith said he admits there is no real answer to the problem of suicide, but continually educating the public on what help is available, such as the peer groups, is vital to helping solve the issue.
“I have one phrase I use every day: If I can help one soldier, one veteran, every day, then I’ve done my job,” Smith said. “And we need a lot more people out there saying the same to help combat the suicide problem. And right now, I personally feel we’re not doing our job.”
- Military One Source: 800-342-9647
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
- Central Counties Services (Temple): 800-888-4036
- Fort Hood Army Substance Abuse Program (Suicide Prevention): 254-287-7575 or 254-287-5245
- Keeyawnia Hawkins, Bell County Veteran Services Officer: 254-933-5915
- Tony Smith, Coryell County Veteran Services Officer: 254-394-2091
- Maureen Jouett, Bring Everyone in the Zone: 254-681-9112
- Military Crisis Line: 800-273-8255, press 1
- Fort Hood Chaplains: 254-287-CHAP
- Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline: 800-984-8523