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State task force probes reasons behind, answers for veterans’ suicides

Veterans Suicide Task Force holds meeting at SWIC in Belleville

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State Reps. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea and Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, on Monday morning welcomed veterans and their families during a meeting of the state-appointed Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide in Belleville.

The task force, consisting of state lawmakers and mental health and legal professionals, was set up earlier this year by the Illinois General Assembly. In its second task force hearing, its members met at Southwestern Illinois College. It plans to hold at least three more public hearings through June, with the goal of submitting recommendations on the allocation of resources to the General Assembly by the end of December.

The task force began its hearing by getting an earful from older veterans who had served in Vietnam. They complained about an overwhelmed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system that provides inadequate services and that too often treats mental health problems with addictive painkillers.

“They handle everything with a pill,” said Lloyd Evans, a Vietnam vet from Fairview Heights with post-tramatic stress disorder.

Despite suffering crippling foot pain, Evans has rejected the pills his VA doctors prescribed, he said.

“I don’t want to walk around like a zombie, “ Evans said.

Suicide among military veterans has grown into a full-fledged public health crisis.

At least 22 military veterans a day take their lives, at a rate at least 50 percent higher than for non-veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many of the problems that lead to suicide for combat veterans, especially the older ones, stem from their difficulties adjusting to civilian society, according to Mick Eddington, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam war who served as a loadmaster aboard one of the last helicopters that rescued Americans before the fall of Saigon, Vietnam in late April 1975.

“A lot of it has to do with the frustration,” said Eddington, of New Minden, in Washington County. “They expect you to figure it out on your own.”

Like Evans, Eddington reported that the VA hospital personnel he’s dealt with are too quick to prescribe pills for mental health problems.

“They were just trying to shut us up,” he said. “So they doped us up.”

Another problem, according to Eddington, is the relative youth of the VA counselors and physicians veterans must deal with.

“Hell, they’re kids. They don’t know anything,” Eddington told the panel. “The only thing they’ve experienced is video games and school. It’d help to have people who’ve lived a little bit.”

Finally, older veterans are so tired and frustrated with the hassles of dealing with the VA and the pain of life in general, that suicide seems like a reasonable option, said Eddington, who acknowledged that he had seriously considered taking his life in 2004 — but didn’t out of concern that one of his children would’ve discovered his lifeless body.

“You get tired. Your kids are grown,” Eddington said. “You see no reason to continue.”

But when you’re a veteran and you have a massive lifestyle change, that’s going to be something difficult to deal with. And the military trying to do a good job with transition assistance....But you can’t understand what transition is going to be until you’re out experiencing it.

Task force member Paul Schimpf of Waterloo

Task force member Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo, said one of the things he’s been hearing from the people who’ve spoken to the task force has to do with the tenuous connections veterans feel with society once they leave the military and return to civilian life.

“The lack of connections makes it harder to deal with some of these issues,” said Schimpf, who retired from the Marines in 2009 at the rank of lieutenant colonel after serving as a military lawyer at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “It’s a little bit counter-intuitive. We are connected today in that everybody’s got a smart phone. But typing something on Facebook is not a substitution for some interaction. And I think you had a lot more person-to-person interaction in those prior generations than we have today.”

All people are at risk to some degree for mental illness, Schmpf said.

“But when you’re a veteran and you have a massive lifestyle change, that’s going to be something difficult to deal with,” he said. “And the military trying to do a good job with transition assistance....But you can’t understand what transition is going to be until you’re out experiencing it.”

William Hampton, 37, who served 14 years in the Army, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, belongs to a motorcycle club consisting of almost entirely of combat veterans. Membership in the club has helped him and his clubmates a great deal because it provides them with a forum where they can discuss their experiences and problems free of judgment, said Hampton, of Marseilles.

“The family, the brotherhood, the camaraderie, something that you don’t get once you get out of the military,” said Hampton, a member of the Vietnam Veteras/Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club.

“Being part of something bigger than just yourself,” said James LaRue, of Aledo, a Navy and Army veteran of Iraq. “We were always team-based” as part of the military. “And once we’re tossed out into the world, we’re individualists again. But it’s hard for us to do that.”

A February 2015 analysis published in the February issue of the Annals of Epidemiology, included all 1,282,074 veterans who served in active-duty units between 2001 and 2007 and left the military during that period, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The analysis matched military records with the National Death Index, which collects data on every U.S. death.

It tracked the veterans after service until the end of the 2009, finding a total of 1,868 suicides.

That equates to an annual suicide rate of 29.5 per 100,000 veterans, or roughly 50 percent higher than the rate among other civilians with similar demographic characteristics.

One of the basic problems for combat veterans trying to re-adjust to life back home in the United States is the difficulty untangling and then processing all the extreme events they’ve seen and experienced — the selflessness, teamwork and bravery of their comrades versus the sudden violence, brutality and death.

“In a combat zone, you see some of the most beautiful things in the world,” Hampton said. “You see some of the ugliest things in the world, also. You get two extremes.”

“You can’t unsee what you’ve seen,” LaRue added.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000