MADISON (WKOW) – In the U.S. military, suicide now takes more American lives than combat. There are many different factors, but the common reality is that coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan doesn't mean the battle is over for many of our service members.
When Iraq war veteran Travis Leanna returned, things weren't quite the same. "I was in a place where I was finding alcohol as a comfort and I started experimenting with drugs, something I had never done before -- just over doing things that weren't good for me or my relationships or anything like that," Leanna says. He never struggled with suicide, but readjusting to life at home was difficult and it took years for him to get help. Now he's passing it on. "I think helping veterans is just the best way to help yourself, ya know? It gives me like a good sense of purpose."
And a common ground is the foundation at Dryhootch in Madison. It's a group of veterans helping veterans. "A veteran has been there, has done that -- they know exactly what they're dealing with, whether it's leaving family, being exposed to violence, coming back from a war zone," Director of Operations Anthony Anderson says.
A war zone has surfaced on domestic territory. A veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, according to new data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Suicides among active duty members of the military have reached an all time high. Pentagon figures obtained by the Associated Press show 349 soldiers took their own lives in 2012, compared to 301 in 2011. That's more than the number of Americans who died in Afghanistan that same year.
"I think it's easy to say that it would be multiple deployments. Everybody knows that with Iraq and Afghanistan, we've had guys go two, three, four -- sometimes five or six times," Anderson says, who also served two tours in Iraq.
Chief of Mental Health at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital Dr. Dean Krahn says there are a lot of issues involved with the problem, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "The problem is when you have traumatic memories they pop up way too often, they pop up when nothing triggered them, they almost have a mind of their own," Krahn says. But a host of other factors like depression, substance abuse, marital difficulty, financial problems, readjustment and traumatic brain injury also play a part. "There's a significant number of non-deployed military and veterans who kill themselves," Krahn says.
It's something Anderson has seen first-hand while working at Dryhootch. "I've worked with veterans that have never deployed that carry an incredible burden of guilt, they feel like they're letting their comrades down, they feel like they're letting the marines or the army or their country down," he says.
Alice Franks-Gray is co-founder of the National Alliance to End Veteran Suicide. "It is a societal responsibility to care for our veterans," she says. They aim to fight the problem with focus areas like education and research. "Once you have the number of completed suicides. It's too late to act on that. We know that there are some behaviors that can lead to death." She plans to work with agencies like the V.A. and non-profits like Dryhootch; they're all working toward a common goal.
"There's a reason why our military is the best in the world and why all of our soldiers and marines and airmen are the best in the world -- because were trained the best, what I would like to see is that same level of commitment to post-service or post-deployment health and preparedness," Anderson says. It's a commitment that the veterans of Dryhootch have made.
Dr. Dean Krahn says asking for help is the first step. "Coming in, whether it's talking to professionals or talking to other veterans, usually some combination thereof, helps people change their viewpoint where maybe than can see a tomorrow and a day after tomorrow."
If you know a veteran or active duty member of the military struggling, there are ways to get help. Click here for more information.
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