September is National Suicide Awareness month. It would be easy to jump on the band wagon by writing a story using all of the statistical information being blogged and bantered about the past few weeks. With my experience being called during many awkward hours, from a veteran or service member with plans to end their life, I am having a hard time with the idea of setting aside only one month for awareness of this growing problem. Recent statistics show that an average of 22 veterans die by suicide every day, and recently veterans have ended their lives inside VA treatment centers. “Suicide Awareness” needs to become an all day every day type of awareness. What is seldom shared is the successful “Critical Incident” responses or stories from veterans who found that “Hand Up” from a complete stranger. The stranger often never realizes the power of their interaction at the right moment. With great humility (it’s a soldier thing) I would like to share one experience that even five years later, keeps my awareness elevated.
This particular call came about midnight from a veteran who worked as a Chaplains Assistant. He had been out of the service for a couple of years. After receiving the phone call, I quickly realized this man was sitting on a park bench in a place over 1200 miles away from me and he was fully prepared to end his life. He mentioned he was given my number by a Veterans Representative, who to this day I have never met. After getting to a place of calm, the veteran agreed to cooperate with local (non VA) suicide first responders. Engaging them through my other phone, they arrived a little more than 30 minutes later. The veteran was in a safe place. The process worked.
Over the next couple of months we worked on a plan to get him treatment at a VA facility closer to his home. Through this process I met his mother, who coincidentally was working as a nurse in the VA health system. Her nursing career started as a combat trauma nurse in Vietnam. Here was a mother who had experienced almost every kind of military trauma situation from the combat zone followed by a long-term career of working with disabled veterans. The process of working with her son estranged their relationship. Through the journey of reconciliation came insight into how this skillful and experienced military trauma nurse dedicated her life to combat trauma veterans, but appeared powerless when it came to helping her son. This is often the case with any of us when the situation involves our own loved one.
So what exactly should be included in the discussions on “Suicide Awareness”? Is the purpose to sit back and spout statistics and point fingers? Being a solutions-focused person, I want to know what works and how things could have gone better. A few points about this Critical Incident encounter described above involve the unknown individual who provided my phone number to this veteran. The Veteran’s Representative had no way of knowing how critical this piece of information would become in the future. I want to thank you for providing this information. During that initial call the distressed veteran’s trust in me was influenced greatly by his respect for you. Thank you also to the local first responders; my admiration for your team goes beyond description. Your fast response and mindful approach to the veteran was very considerate. It serves as a reminder of the importance of community partnerships in addressing the issue of our veteran suicide epidemic. Thank you to all who serve as suicide responders. Remember to take time to share and celebrate the successful outcomes you experience. Also, take time to recognize and acknowledge people who have made a difference. Thank you again Mr. Veterans Representative, where ever you are. You made a difference in many ways.