Military suicides have become somewhat less frequent, but remain a 'massive problem'

Military suicides have become somewhat less frequent, but remain a ‘massive problem’

At Cornerstone Equine Therapy Center outside San Diego, Judy Beckett has worked with the Navy for more than a decade. Most of his calls these days come from naval commanders looking for new ideas to increase the resilience of sailors.

She said horses have almost a meditative power with sailors who suffer from PTSD or military sexual trauma.

“There’s an intangible element that no one really knows why, but when you’re with them, you literally don’t think about anything else. And you can’t,” she said.

A former client called her a year after she finished her therapy. He told her he was considering suicide. When she asked him what stopped him, he told her he thought about the horse he rode during the program.

“He said this guy saved my life so many times,” Beckett said. “And he said, ‘Judy, I just thought about him and how good I felt and how he changed my life. And he says, ‘It just stopped me. It stopped me.'”

More than 500 service members die by suicide each year, although the number fell slightly last year. This summer, a Pentagon committee visited bases around the world, including Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Naval Air Station North Island in California, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the National Guard of North Carolina and Camp Humphreys in South Korea. The panel also visited three bases in Alaska, where there have been several suicides.

Despite the scrutiny, four more suicides took place in November at the Navy Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Earlier in the year, in the nearby Newport News, seven suicides were reported on the USS George Washington.

After touring the ship, Master Chief Russell Smith told Congress in May that he had already battled suicidal thoughts. He also told the story of a colleague – a Navy SEAL – who committed suicide.

“Suicide is a huge problem for us because it’s the only thing we can absolutely prevent by getting into people’s headspace and connecting with them,” Smith said.

“A person who commits suicide might look like your neighbor,” said Jenny D’Olympia, director of military veteran psychology at William James College in Massachusetts. “They could be the person next door. It doesn’t have to be someone who seems to be losing his mind and is in constant crisis.

D’Olympia said the services should prepare everyone to better handle dark times. Because firearms are used in the majority of military suicides. D’Olympia said the armed forces should give all troops strategies for the safe handling of personal firearms, and not just focus on people with mental health crises.

“I think what we need to do is focus our efforts on others,” she said. “Like preparing them to be aware that you might have that fleeting thought and because you have easy access to a highly deadly means you might take actions that you can’t take back.”

Gunnery Mate 2nd Class Alexis Vazquez places his handprint on a suicide awareness screen aboard USS Green Bay in September 2021.

Gunnery Mate 2nd Class Alexis Vazquez places his handprint on a suicide awareness screen aboard USS Green Bay in September 2021.

Teri Caserta’s son Brandon killed himself four years ago when he entered a helicopter blade at his base in Norfolk. After Brandon’s death, his parents found six suicide notes where he detailed bullying and hazing at his request.

“We were looking into his phone and noticed he was texting a lot of people under his command and telling them not to kill themselves,” she said.

She and her husband Pat lobbied to pass a federal law that took effect this year that requires mental health assessments of those who report suicidal thoughts. It also allows sailors and soldiers to step out of their chain of command for mental health care. The rules are similar to those put in place to protect victims of sexual assault.

Caserta said the services needed to do more to protect young sailors before they struggle.

“In my opinion, this panel that they are setting up, and now this report that they are setting up, will not be accurate,” she said. “They don’t look at the real problem. The real problem is toxic leadership and abuse of power.

The panel is due to report to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in December and then send a report to Congress by February.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak to a certified listener, call 988.

CrisisText Line is an SMS service for emotional crisis support. To speak to a qualified auditor, text HELLO to 741741. It’s free, available 24/7 and confidential.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit .

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