Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oregon looks at military suicide numbers on local, national level

The U.S. Army recently released numbers that show a sharp spike in suicides among their ranks.

Army officials recently quoted by major news outlets today say at least 125 soldiers took their lives last year, and are investigating the deaths of an additional 17 soldiers, which may have been possible suicides. These numbers are up from 115 in 2007, and 102 in 2006.

This is the highest number since the Army began keeping records—and also the highest jump from one year to the next. Not all the services are immune, however. Suicides for 2008 were on the rise across all the services, but the Army showed the most dramatic rise, according to the report.

The Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs recently launched a six-week campaign to raise awareness of veteran suicides.

“There’s a huge number of Guard losses,” said ODVA Public Information Manager, Tom Mann. “We know they’re high.”

The public service announcements began airing Dec. 17, 2008 on two radio stations in Portland. They have also been broadcast in Comcast cable markets from Portland to Eugene and Coos Bay to Astoria. Radio stations in Astoria, Bend, Hood River, The Dalles and Klamath Falls are also airing them. According to Mann, their PSA (below) was released about a month before the national VA video PSA featuring actor Gary Sinise.

According to ODVA spokesperson, Mike Allegre, four of the 10 largest newspapers in the state—The Oregonian, Salem Statesman Journal, The Bend Bulletin, Eugene Register-Guard and the Albany Democrat Herald—are giving, or have already given, editorial space devoted to articles and opinion pieces about suicide awareness.

A study done by the National Institute of Mental Health found more than 90-percent of suicides throughout the general population stem from mood disorder or psychiatric illness. Furthermore, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds. Experts attribute higher numbers among veterans, caused by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

Unfortunately, many of these veterans don’t have enough time to deal with these issues upon returning home, said ODVA’s Mann. Many of them are expected to immediately return to work, he added.

“We know that just doesn’t work,” he said.

“The guys come home from [their deployment] and find themselves back in civilian clothes within a week,” said one Oregon soldier who requested anonymity. “That’s not enough time to figure out if you need help or not.”

Military members who are away for a year only want to get back to their families, he added. They don’t want to get bogged down at the demobilization station because they admitted to having psychiatric issues.

Furthermore, the military as an institution stigmatizes mental illness, with those who admit to having problems being labeled as weak, or inadequate.

“That stigma is changing,” the soldier said. “Up till recently, it was, ‘suck it up’, or ‘if you can’t handle this, then go join the Girl Scouts.’”

But because so many people have deployed, soldiers are starting to ‘get it’, he added.

“I think it’s a strength of character issue,” the soldier said. When someone asks for help and his buddies give him grief, I guarantee you they all have issues too, but are afraid to say anything,” he said.

Indeed, the winds of change are blowing from top levels of the Army.

According to the commanding general for the Army’s Division West and Fort Carson in Colorado, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the Army can overcome the stigma attached to soldiers who ask for help.

“Who is that person who has wounds that you can’t see? Should they be ashamed?” Graham asks.

“I can think of few subjects more important than this one,” Graham continues. He added that more people need to talk about the challenges and stigma associated with mental health and thoughts of suicide.

“Leaders, be compassionate. Soldiers, it’s okay to get help,” Graham said during a speech at the 2009 DoD/VA Annual Suicide Prevention Conference held in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 12. “Untreated depression, PTSD or TBI deserve attention. Encourage those who are affected to seek help without embarrassment,” he added.

To help ease returning military members back into their lives and society, the ODVA recently introduced a bill known as House Joint Memorial-4 into the state legislature. It provides for a “soft landing” for returning veterans, to allow for thoughtful reintegration back into society, Mann said.

HJM-4 will request funding to cover a minimum of 90 days for returning soldiers to “decompress” he said. During this time, soldiers will receive information and referrals to their educational and employment benefits, and medical assessments. The bill will also allow for servicemember’s families to be with them throughout the extended reintegration process—something not provided in the existing demobilization plan.

One interesting question which may require further in-depth study to answer is this: Is there a correlation between suicide rates in states which have active duty military installations, versus those which don’t?

Indeed, states which have active duty bases already have a support network in place to assist soldiers who need help. States like Oregon, which only has National Guard armories and air bases, may lack an established network of military professionals available for advice or counseling by military members and their families who need such services.

Like many other efforts in Oregon, helping servicemembers has turned into a grassroots effort.
Several Oregon mental health experts have volunteered their services and time to assist Oregon’s servicemembers who need help. Known as the Returning Veterans Project, the nonprofit comprised of politically unaffiliated and independent health care practitioners offer free and confidential services to veterans and their families.

The program is currently based in Portland, Ore., but they do have providers in Ashland, Salem and Vancouver, Wash. The goal is to expand to every community in Oregon, says Carol Levine, a licensed clinical social worker who provides mental health counseling in her own practice in downtown Portland.

“People don’t want to deal with the war, think about the war or veterans,” Levine explained in an interview with the ODVA. “It’s our war whether we like it or not, it’s our veterans. This is our responsibility as a society to [help them].”

Mental health practitioners like Levine are working with the VA Medical Center in Portland. The unique aspect of the program is to work with the families. Unfortunately, federal VA laws are very limited in terms of providing mental health care to veterans’ family members, but Levine and her colleagues welcome family members who want to seek help they may need from the project’s mental health providers.

The breadth of services offered goes well beyond psychiatric help, according to officials. Veterans and their families can take advantage of alternative medicine including naturopathy and acupuncture. The team also provides alternative as well as mainstream treatments for PTSD.

“There are lots of providers who want to participate,” Levine said. But she added that finding the one person to take the lead in a community is difficult.

For those who are close to the affected person, Graham’s advice is simple.

“Don’t be afraid to intervene to save a life,” he said. “Just being with someone can make a difference.”

To find out more about the Returning Veterans Project, visit their website at:

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

To download or share the Department of Veterans Administration suicide awareness video featuring actor Gary Sinise from YouTube, visit the Oregon National Guard's YouTube page at:

The Army has distributed a pamphlet called “ACE program for Soldiers”. The acronym is created by the main sections of, “Ask your buddy”, “Care for your buddy”, and “Escort your buddy”. It contains several important suicide warning signs:

• Talk of suicide or killing someone else
• Giving away property or disregard for what happens to one's property
• Withdrawal from friends and activities
• Problems with girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse
• Acting bizarre or unusual (based on your knowledge of the person)
• In trouble for misconduct
• Soldiers experiencing financial problems
• Soldiers who have lost their job at home (such as Reservists or Guardsmen)
• Soldiers leaving the service

To obtain copies of the “ACE program for Soldiers”, visit the virtual armory online, or go here.

Posted by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy,
Oregon Military Department Emerging Media Manager

Information for this article were taken from articles posted to,,, The Portland Tribune, and, as well as interviews with personnel at the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.

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