Editorial: Fighting suicide in military families

  • Updated: October 17, 2011 - 10:16 AM

High number of Guard cases makes state program essential.

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Mary Clare Lindberg felt that one of the reasons her son, Ben, considered and ultimately committed suicide, was that he could not bear the thought of returning to Iraq for a second deployment.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Unemployed and about to be evicted, a 28-year-old Minnesota National Guard member had a shotgun within reach and was considering suicide.

But before pulling the trigger, he reached out to CORE, a program for military families. Able counselors stabilized the risk, got him immediate psychiatric care and saved his life.

His was one of 14 suicides that CORE officials say they've prevented since opening their doors in 2008.

In addition, the program has helped more than 45 married couples stay together, and has kept more than 40 people from becoming homeless.

Though it is highly effective and much-needed, the program is in danger of running out of funds. With its impressive track record, CORE merits continued and expanded funding.

And it is especially important to have those services available here -- Minnesota Guard members have the highest suicide rates in the nation.

A recent series by Star Tribune reporter Mark Brunswick reported that between 2007 and 2010, 18 members of the Minnesota Guard have taken their own lives -- more than in any other state.

In addition, there have been four confirmed Guard suicides in Minnesota this year, with a fifth under investigation.

The majority were single, white males with an average age of 26. Just under two-thirds of those who died had no deployment experience.

Of the 18 states that reported such suicides up to 2010, Oregon was second with 16. Vermont, Massachusetts, Kentucky and New Mexico had the lowest rate -- one suicide each.

Clearly more must be done to help servicepeople handle their lives during and after military stints.

Enter programs such as CORE, (crisis management, outreach referral and education), which is operated by Lutheran Social Services in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Created in 2008, the program helps military families with postdeployment problems and provides free, confidential counseling to veterans as well as to active-duty service members and their families. It served more than 1,400 clients in 2009-10 and more than 1,500 in its last fiscal year.

A special $500,000 annual allocation from the Legislature finances the effort. But with increased demand, the budget that was supposed to last through next June will likely be depleted by December or January.

So the service may end for anyone who doesn't have insurance or their own means to pay.

With U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, demand for services is rising as more soldiers come home.

Understanding that, officials at the state Department of Veterans Affairs say that no Minnesota vets who need help will be turned away. Troubled Guard men and women will be directed to a federal military call-in site or other Guard programs.

The department and Gov. Mark Dayton remain committed to finding funds to care for veterans, Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito said.

He said private, nonprofit and vets groups are welcome to help, but that the state and federal government have the primary responsibility to address issues of military personnel.

Federal programs are "maturing'' and are building capacity to address the needs of returning soldiers, he added.

State programs such as CORE serve military men and women where they live -- not just over the phone.

And, in Minnesota, CORE is often a first responder to vets and active-duty members and their families in crisis. The program works, and it deserves the state's continued support.

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