State’s suicide rate among National Guard members is a call to action

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As Minnesota’s National Guard members return from their deployment to Kuwait, the state can expect the problems faced by returning veterans to increase to a “tsunami” level.” Uppermost on that list is the potential for suicide.

Minnesota has the highest number of suicides among its Guard members than any other state, Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general for the Minnesota National Guard, told a joint meeting of the House Veterans Services Division and the Senate State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee. No action was taken.

Since 2007, 24 Minnesota National Guard members have taken their own life — followed by Oregon at 16. Nash noted the incidents occurred among members who had never been deployed, debunking the common assumption that suicide is related to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“The essential fact is suicide rates have been increasing, not only those in the military. … Suicide rates in Minnesota are five times higher than homicides,” Nash said.

Many factors contribute to a person taking their own life, including unemployment, family breakups and financial stresses, he said.

Minnesota’s high unemployment rate among veterans (approximately 12 percent) has Nash concerned. While recently in Kuwait visiting Minnesota’s National Guard contingent, he learned that 28 percent of the force would be facing unemployment when they return in 2012.

“These are alarming figures. This is one of the known factors for suicide,” he said. ‘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.”

Veteran unemployment is compounded by the perception that many returning military suffer from PTSD. Additionally, the military’s dependence on civilian soldiers leaves employers nervous that a Guard member-employee could be called up at any time.

During emotional testimony, Greg Roberts, a staff sergeant from Bemidji, spoke via Skype about how difficult it was to return to civilian life, especially after the suicide of a close military friend.

“When you are gone for nearly two years, you spend so much time thinking of home, and when you get home, it is not what you remembered it to be. It is the second war that nobody talks about,” he said.

Nash said that Minnesota is ahead of many states in developing model programs to help prevent suicides.

But Roberts countered that most veterans want to be left alone (by the government), and his suggestion would be to empower “Guard buddies” to keep in contact with each other.

Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito was critical of the federal government’s response to veterans’ needs, and cautioned that with the “tsunami” of those returning from combat, programs need to be in place. He called today’s testimony a “gift” to legislators that he hoped would lead to action.