This weekend marks the 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. About 500 adults and 170 children will participate in workshops, art therapy and outdoor activities learning skills to cope with the suicide of a loved one who served in the military.
The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012: more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat.
And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide, have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt.
After more than a decade of service, her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruoco, died by suicide. It turned Kim into an advocate.
“One of the reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.”
It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday.
Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot.
“His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.”
And Major Ruoco 'pushed through it,' successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005.
Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help.
She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day.
“By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.”
Her biggest concern was what do, how to tell their sons, Joey, 10 and Billy, 8.
“At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said.
A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors.
But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.”
“He said, 'mom I think I killed Dad.' I said, 'what do you mean honey?'” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.'”
At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself.
Kim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children.
Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group.
But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband.
A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college.
Kim was invited to help TAPS create a support program for military suicide survivors. She’s now manager for Suicide Outreach and Education programs at TAPS.
“We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.”
She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide.
For more information go to www.taps.org. If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.