Battle on home front is Guard's most perilous

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 2:45 PM

Suicide total for Minnesota's Guard members ranks among nation's worst.

Their names are tucked into the Minnesota Department of Health database that catalogues the state's suicides, with no hint of their common bond.

There is the 17-year-old girl from Kerrick who shot herself on the railroad tracks in Pine County. The 38-year-old man who made his living selling rides on a World War II-era tank until he killed himself in Inver Grove Heights. The 19-year-old born in Thailand who shot himself in Minneapolis.

Some were mechanics, some were students, some worked construction. All were soldiers in the Minnesota National Guard.

Their deaths have helped give the state Guard an unwanted distinction: It's second in the nation in the number of suicides that occur in its ranks.

Since 2007, 18 members of the state National Guard have killed themselves. Only Oregon, with 20, has had more. The Minnesota cases have been part of a worrisome trend of more suicides in the military, one which saw more service members kill themselves last year than died in combat.

"It's always a horrible tragedy to see a service member safely off of the battlefield only to lose them to this scourge,'' said Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general of the Minnesota Guard.

When members of the Army Reserve are included, Minnesota still has the second-worst suicide total in the country, with 27 deaths since 2005, trailing only Texas at 30.

Most of the suicides in the Minnesota Guard, which has the eighth-largest state contingent in the nation, have been soldiers who never deployed to a war zone. In fact, Minnesota leads the nation in suicides among Guard members not on active duty. Some of them had not yet even attended basic training.

There is no easy explanation for the toll. Over the last decade, though, the demands on Guard members have profoundly changed. Once a force typically called on only for occasional stints of disaster relief work, the Guard is now commonly summoned for long deployments to combat zones. No one is drawing a direct link between that new stress and the increase in suicides, but the rising suicides among Guard and Reserve forces drove the military's overall total to a national record last year.

Guard commanders say they know that they have a serious problem.

"We can, must, and will do better," Nash said. "We have an obligation to save future lives."

What's uncertain is whether the Guard has adequate solutions.

• • •

Isolated

Army leaders say the geographic isolation of many Guard and Reserve members when they are not on duty contributes to the problem.

David Staab, a sergeant in the Minnesota Guard who served a year in Iraq, came home to rural Dawson, for example, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Told he was going back for another tour, he sought help at a VA facility in St. Cloud, 2 1/2 hours from his home.

After a bout of drinking, he shot himself in the chest in August 2008 in the small house where he lived behind his parents' home.

His mother, Cindy Staab, said he had been struggling with depression, anxiety and some family problems. "It was a combination of personal life and military," she said.

Counseling programs for returning Guard and Reserve units vary from state to state. Minnesota is considered a pioneer with its "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program, which helps families and soldiers adjust to life after a deployment. It requires soldiers and their family members to attend programs on such issues as communication and finances.

Other states, such as California, are more often cited for the quality of their suicide-prevention work with Guard members and reservists. It has embedded mental health counselors down to the unit level on drill weekends and during two-week training periods.

New Jersey has a program that provides Guard members and reservists with access to mental health services similar to those available to full-time soldiers on military bases through a program called Vets4Warriors. It was started through the advocacy of an East Brunswick, N.J., mother whose son committed suicide.

U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has been pushing to expand the program nationwide, saying it has helped save lives and aided thousands of military families. Federal legislation is being considered to require the Pentagon to provide similar resources to all inactive Guard and Reserve members.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that close tabs can be kept on any active-duty soldier returning from service. But for a Guard or Reserve member, "within five to seven days, he's back in his community, on his own."

• • •

Awkward homecomings

Greg Roberts, a former staff sergeant in the Minnesota Guard now studying to become a chiropractor, can attest to the pressure that returning Guard members face and their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. He returned to Bemidji from Iraq in June 2007 along with other members of his unit after an extended deployment.

Everyone from the unit had trouble trying to pick up where they left off, Roberts said. While they would occasionally bump into each other, most wanted to go their own way.

Fellow Guardsman Jesse Davis lived next door to Roberts. In late summer of 2009, Davis, who was 27 and had been deployed to Iraq twice, began drinking more heavily than usual. He started school, then quit, started a job, then gave notice and moved in with his brother.

In September, Davis shot himself in the face inside the home.

"Looking back ... every one of us had a little piece of the puzzle, but we had all scattered and gone our separate ways,'' Roberts said.

No one could point to a single event in Iraq that traumatized Davis. But it was clear that he came back from the war more withdrawn and isolated.

"For him, it was a failure to adapt to regular life,'' Roberts said. "I don't think he felt like he had a place, like he fit in with anything."

Roberts, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Guard and Reserve units are especially vulnerable to stress after a deployment.

To ease the transition, it may even be wise, Roberts said, to require Guard and Reserve soldiers to show up at the local armory every day for a few hours in the months after they return.

"You are stuck in this lifestyle of doing the Army thing, and then all of a sudden you're back home and you are expected to know how to be a civilian again,'' he said. "You can't act the same way in civilian life that you can in your uniform. People look weird, they are doing their own thing, there's no cohesiveness. Things don't make as much sense and it takes a long time to get back into that."

Roberts used to wear two bands on his right wrist -- one carrying the name of Greg Riewer, a friend killed in a bomb blast in Iraq, and one for Davis.

He recently decided not to wear them every day. Too many questions from too many people.

"It's time to move on," he said.

But they were back on his wrist for Memorial Day.

• • •

'Why do we kill ourselves?'

Minnesota Guard leaders don't dispute the high numbers of suicides in the state, but they say the tally cannot necessarily be viewed as a spike because the Army only began keeping track of Guard statistics in 2006.

Even as prevention and monitoring programs have been instituted throughout the military, the part-time nature of Guard service has made it difficult to identify at-risk soldiers in its ranks, said Lt. Col. John Morris, head chaplain of the Minnesota Guard, who oversees many of its outreach efforts.

Every soldier is now provided a card as part of the Army's "ACE'' suicide prevention program. It encourages fellow soldiers or family members to "ask," "care" or "escort" an at-risk soldier to get help.

"We're a part-time force doing a full-time job. We're displaced throughout the state, we only see these soldiers once a month," Morris said. "Because of the demands of the war, they look to us for full-time support but we're staffed at part-time levels. It's a big challenge."

He said the high suicide numbers in the Minnesota Guard need to be viewed in context -- the state has higher rates of suicide as a whole, particularly in northern Minnesota.

The part of the population most likely to join the Guard -- young white males -- also has a higher rate of suicide in general.

"We kill ourselves at a high rate in this state. Why do we kill ourselves so much in Minnesota? Why do we abuse alcohol at such a high rate? Why do we lead the nation in depression? We've got some things going [on] here that are systemic, and we reflect that in the Guard," Morris said.

A review of the Guard suicides in Minnesota shows the problem evident across the state, with deaths occurring in the metro area and in rural towns. Only two took place in the same city -- tiny Pierz, in Morrison County, although they happened two years apart and apparently were unrelated.

The soldiers involved ranged in age from 17 to 39. The average age was just under 27. All but one was white, all but two were men. The worst year was 2009, with eight suicides. As is often the case with military suicides, gunshot was the most common method.

At least 10 Minnesota Guard members shot themselves. At least three died by hanging. At least five of the deaths have been connected to alcohol intoxication.

For some, their deaths came despite the Guard's help.

Lukas Koskie, 23, a Spring Lake Park resident who killed himself in January 2010, had struggled with personal and relationship problems from which the Guard provided a refuge. He joined at 19, enjoyed the military and was looking forward to his infantry unit's first deployment.

His mother, Peggy Koskie, said the Guard counseled him on his problems, a fact that she was unaware of until after Lukas' death.

"The National Guard turned his life around,'' she remembered.

"Somebody from the Guard came up to me and said, 'I've been counseling Lukas and I said, 'Eh?' I knew nothing about that," she added.

With its new focus on suicide prevention, the Minnesota Guard is classifying more soldiers as at-risk. In 2010, it identified 31 soldiers as having suicidal ideas or having made an attempt and been placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. That was up from 16 the year before.

In 2009, eight Minnesota Guard soldiers killed themselves. Last year, the number was five.

Through the end of February, two Guard soldiers had killed themselves while 11 others were identified as having suicidal thoughts or made attempts.

"You see that they're coming forward for the first time," said Command Sgt. Major Edward Mills, the Guard's top enlisted soldier. "They feel like they can come to us, and we are not going to hold it against them."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

mbrunswick@startribune.com

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