Minnesota Guard leader confronts high rate of suicides

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2011 - 9:50 AM

Legislative panel heard state commander discuss prevention.

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Gen. Rick Nash

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard told a legislative panel Monday that the Guard may be facing "undue notoriety" for having more suicides than any other state National Guard.

Gen. Rick Nash also said that membership in the Guard was not a contributing factor to most of the deaths and that suicide prevention programs for Guard members seem to be working. So far this year, 34 members of the Guard have expressed feelings that they might kill themselves to their command and have been sent for immediate help. In 2008, only eight soldiers sought the same kind of help.

"We will never leave a comrade on the battlefield, and we realize there is a battlefield at home, and we will do everything we can to not leave a comrade to die by suicide," Nash told a joint House and Senate committee.

But in an emotional hearing, one former National Guard member said the Guard did nothing to seek him out to make sure he was OK after an extended deployment to Iraq.

Others described the anguish of military suicide on friends and family, including having personal items such as computers and cameras scrubbed clean before they were returned at the end of an investigation and of seeking an account of the incident only to have the military black out much of the record.

Since 2007, 24 members of the Minnesota Guard have killed themselves, including six this year, the highest number of suicides in the country. Oregon's National Guard is second at 16, and Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania have 15.

Never deployed

Nash, who took over command of the 14,000-member Minnesota Guard last year, said that two-thirds of the members who committed suicide were never deployed to a combat zone and that most appear to fit an overall pattern for the demographic of those most likely to kill themselves: white men in their 20s.

Unemployment among state Guard members is one of many factors contributing to military suicides, and it will continue to loom on the horizon as the U.S. military draws down its forces. During a recent trip to visit 2,700 members of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division deployed to Kuwait, Nash was told that 28 percent of the soldiers would be unemployed when they return home next year.

The committee took no action, but the hearing is likely to set the stage for the upcoming legislative session when funding of prevention programs may be up for debate.

Guard officials described efforts to build resilience among soldiers, including the goal of having 57 trainers monitor and develop coping mechanisms among troops. In addition, a program through Lutheran Social Service known as CORE, for active-duty troops and veterans in crisis, will continue to be funded, officials said.

But others talked about gaps in the system that leave soldiers vulnerable, particularly Guard and Reserve troops who return to communities unaccustomed to dealing with what the soldiers have experienced.

'Made me sick'

Greg Roberts, a former staff sergeant with the Minnesota Guard, returned to Bemidji after a deployment to Iraq in 2007 and quickly found himself unraveling. The last thing he wanted to do, he told the committee, was have anything to do with the military. Though still a Guard member, the thought of putting on a uniform again "made me sick," he said.

No one in command from his unit sought him out when he skipped drill weekends and, ultimately, received a letter telling him he had been dishonorably discharged from the Guard, which he was successful in appealing.

"When you get home, it is not what you remembered it to be. It is the second war that nobody talks about," he said.

Similarly, Mary Claire Lindberg, whose son Army Sgt. Ben Miller, killed himself while home on leave in Iraq, recounted how his supervisors noticed problems during his second tour and encouraged him to seek help but did nothing to force the issue.

"They [the military] give it a cursory effort and then they move on," she said.

Others spoke of how the Minnesota Guard reacted after a suicide. In the fall of 2009, Maj. Tad Hervas became the highest-ranking member of the Minnesota National Guard to kill himself, after being told he was facing disciplinary action in Iraq.

Since then, the Hervas family has continued to seek answers about the events that led to his death but has been largely rebuffed. Records have been provided with large sections blacked out and names redacted. Hervas' personal computer and a camera were returned to the family with the drive erased and all images, including pictures from a fly-fishing trip just weeks before he died, deleted.

"I know Major Hervas put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger but the military put it there," testified Shelly Martin, a Hervas family friend.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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