The Minnesota National Guard leads the country in the number of soldiers who have committed suicide, and a program that has been shown to successfully prevent suicides in the state's military now faces the prospect of running out of money by the end of the year.

With demand increasing, the program from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is burning through money at a rate of $50,000 to $70,000 a month, and a $500,000 appropriation from the Legislature is likely to be depleted by December or January. With funding capped and its contract not up until June, local services are likely to be stopped for anyone who doesn't have a way to pay for them, or they will be directed to a federal military call-in program answered by a phone bank from another state.

"We run a real risk of being victims of our own success," said Mary Beth Galey, senior director of counseling and adoption for Lutheran Social Service, the state's largest nonprofit social service organization. "To a great extent, we'll probably be stuck."

The program is known as CORE, for crisis management, outreach, referral and education. Started in 2008 to combat post-deployment problems, it provides free, confidential counseling to veterans and active-duty service members and their families. It served more than 1,400 clients in the 2009-10 fiscal year and more than 1,500 in its most recent fiscal year. Program officials claim it has prevented more than 14 suicides, helped mend more than 45 marriages and kept more than 40 people from becoming homeless.

Its success comes as the military wrestles with returning veterans and record levels of suicide, particularly among its Guard and Reserve components. Unlike other programs, CORE often acts as a first responder to veterans and active-duty service members and their families in crisis, providing mental health and financial counseling services, either at a person's home, in local offices or over the phone.

Funded largely through the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, the program has seen an increased number of referrals from active members of the Minnesota National Guard within the last year.

Caller had loaded shotgun

Those included a 28-year-old Guard member who contacted the program threatening suicide with a loaded shotgun within his reach. Unemployed and about to be evicted, the soldier worked with a CORE counselor who stabilized the risk and obtained immediate psychiatric care for him. In another case, a 24-year-old soldier, pending deployment to Iraq, called CORE during training at Camp Ripley. He told the counselor he was addicted to pain medications and alcohol and was feeling suicidal. The counselor got him hospitalized and coordinated outpatient care with the Guard, the Veterans Affairs hospital, and the soldier's family. He recovered and was deployed with his unit in May.

From 2007 to 2010, 18 members of the Minnesota National Guard have killed themselves. While Minnesota ranks 36th in the country in suicide rates overall, no other state National Guard unit has a higher rate of suicide, according to statistics maintained by the National Guard Bureau. In addition, there have been four confirmed Guard suicides in Minnesota this year. A fifth is being investigated.

The Guard contends that it has not been a contributing factor, noting that most of the suicides involve soldiers never deployed. It believes it has actually provided a network of support to a population often at high risk: young white males.

"Believe it or not, for our service members, their best two days of their month are coming to our drill weekend," said Maj. Aaron Krenz, the Guard's director of deployment cycle support and one of its leaders in addressing suicide prevention efforts. "What we lose control of is when they go back to their civilian employer, when they go back to their families."

The Minnesota Guard has launched its own efforts this year to address the suicide rate, by training commanders to recognize stress factors such as relationship problems, substance abuse and unemployment, factors that may lead to suicide.

Its Resiliency, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention program (R3SP) has identified and monitored 436 at-risk soldiers and embedded master resilience trainers and assistants in units for counseling.

In the next three months, Adjutant Gen. Richard Nash, head of the Minnesota Guard, is dispatching its highest-level officers to drill weekends to specifically talk about suicide.

"There is an invisible enemy among us, and it is suicide," Col. Kevin Gerdes, deputy commander of the 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division, told recruits during a recent drill weekend in Rosemount.

No funds in the pipeline

Last year, the Guard transferred $100,000 from the money it received from the Support Our Troops license plate program to the Department of Veterans Affairs to buttress the CORE program. But Lutheran Social Service's Galey says they have been told not to expect any new infusion of cash before its contract runs out in June. A new contract could be approved then, but program officials have been told not to expect any increases in funding.

CORE's success has other states looking at how it works, and there has been talks at the congressional level of adapting it nationally.

Many veterans and members of the military may be reluctant to use a program associated with the military, either because of fears of hurting their careers or harsh feelings about the military, said Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Anna Long. Organizations such as Lutheran Social Service also can use providers in a local community where clients feel more comfortable, said Reggie Worlds, senior director of programs and services at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Although funded for veterans, the program will continue to serve active-duty soldiers, Worlds vowed.

"We don't want to provide any roadblocks to access," he said. "We are entry points for service and we are not going to turn anyone away."

But Galey said if the money runs out, CORE will limit itself to accepting referrals for clients who have a third party to pay, or refer service members in crisis to Military OneSource, a nationwide one-stop hotline funded by the Pentagon.

The Guard's Krenz said it will continue to look to the OneSource program as its main resource, rather than fund any local programs.

Officials from Lutheran Social Service, including former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, have been making the case for more funding at the State Capitol, but legislators will be wrestling with an anticipated deficit when the legislative session begins Jan. 24.

The chairmen of both the Senate and House committees overseeing appropriations for the program speak highly of CORE, but warn that more funding will be difficult.

"I like the private-public partnership, but let's make sure that the dollars ... are being used properly and that we are able to track some kind of return on investment," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, chairman of the Government Innovation and Veterans Committee. "Everyone wants to help our veterans and servicemen and women. Let's make sure we're doing the best we can, and we shouldn't have any budget issues."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434