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A Memorial Day For Veterans Killed By Suicide

May 20, 2016

 The nation will remember those killed while serving their country on Memorial Day in just over a week. But a local group called Veterans Counseling Veterans wants people to think about another kind of Memorial Day – one honoring those who served in uniform and died by suicide -- and is planning such as service this Sunday in Tampa at American Legion Post 5.

The Veterans Counseling Veterans memorial service is an example of the many different efforts to eliminate the stigma of suicide and improve veteran suicide prevention from Congress to local counselors.

One of the challenges some advocates say they face is a number: 22. A 2012 VA report estimated 22 vets a day die by suicide, and it's often quoted in media reports. But that data is questionable because it didn’t include all 50 states. And it’s mistakenly associated with only Post 9-11 veterans.

“It concerns me that veterans from my generation, from Iraq and Afghanistan, or any veteran for that matter hears that number and maybe thinks man am I broken? " asks Blayne Smith, leader of a veterans’ empowerment organization called Team Red White and Blue, which works to connect transitioning service members and veterans to their community through exercise and social activities.

"Is that who we are as a collective? Are we the kind of people who go overseas and fight and come home broken and shoot ourselves? And that’s just not true it’s not even close to true.”

Yet, that number 22 persists and was even mentioned by a veteran who recently took his life, said Kim Ruocco, another advocate.

“The suicide note said, ‘I’m going to be one of the 22 today, why should I even try?’,” she told the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs during a hearing last week on veteran suicide prevention.

Ruocco lost her husband, Marine Corp. Major John Ruocco, to suicide and now works on suicide prevention and post-intervention with the military families’ group TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

“Having the negative messages out there that say it’s an epidemic, 22 a day, is increasing hopelessness in our veterans population and the feeling of helplessness and the feeling that treatment doesn’t work,” Ruocco said. “We need a campaign where we’re all speaking with one voice about the people that are getting treatment, that treatment works, that more people are surviving than are dying by suicide.”

Committee Chairman U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Pensacola said the VA has missed many opportunities to intervene.

“There’s clearly a deadly disconnect between the many services and supports the VA offers and the veterans that most need our help. Care -- particularly for someone who is contemplating suicide -- is not one size fits all and while suicide is undoubtedly a mental health issue it is also much more than that,” Miller said.

Miller wants the VA to take a more comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, to embrace alternative treatments and to engage the veterans’ families and local organizations.

A mural in the recreation room at Team RWB headquarters in Tampa.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media

That includes organizations like Veterans Counseling Veterans founded by Ellsworth “Tony” Williams of Tampa. He told a Haley VA roundtable, organized by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, that dealing with veterans considering suicide starts at home.

“It’s happening here, not in another state,” Williams said. “It’s happening right in our community and the solution is local. It’s not national because you’ve got to be able to go to that person, talk to them and assign them somewhere.”

Williams, a veteran and a mental health counselor, and Tampa’s American Legion Post 5 have planned a Memorial Ceremony for the families, friends and colleagues of veterans and active duty military who have killed themselves.

“We’re going to try to bring it (suicide) outside the shadows,” Williams said and to shed light on the military accomplishments and honorable service of those who killed themselves.

The Memorial Service is open to those who have lost a loved veteran or service member who died by suicide. It is scheduled from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at American Legion Post 5, 3810 W Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, FL.