- - Thursday, September 3, 2015

There is a new war being waged in America today. It isn’t against poverty or drugs. Those who are casualties of this war often greet death brought to them by their own hands on American soil.

This new war is against veteran suicide.

In January 2013, my husband Charles Popoloski, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, received word that one of his former battalion commanders, Col. Richard E. White, passed away due to suicide. It is unknown why the colonel decided to take his own life. What is known is that the statistic of 22 veterans a day does not discriminate against age, rank, gender or branch of service. 

What is also known is that the colonel was admired by many, including soldiers such as my husband. We visited the colonel’s gravesite this past year at Arlington National Cemetery and I know Charlie would have much rather visited with him and not a white tombstone.

Not only are veterans casualties of suicide, but many of their caregivers also battle similar demons. It is unknown how many military caregivers die by suicide. According to the RAND Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers study, 38 percent of post-9/11 military caregivers meet the criteria for depression and only 34 percent of the caregivers who meet this criteria are receiving mental health treatment. For pre-9/11 caregivers, 19 percent meet the criteria for depression, and 37 percent of the pre-9/11 caregivers who meet this criteria are receiving mental health treatment.

The month of September is Suicide Prevention Month and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is working to raise awareness of not only veteran suicide, but also veteran caregiver and family suicide. The Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Veterans, as well as their caregivers, friend and family can go to the VA’s website, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or text 838255 to receive free, confidential support.

A woman I’ll call Jane Smith to protect her identity is a caregiver of a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and she struggled with depression while caring for her him. A mother of two, Mrs. Smith said she “never felt the sheer desperation and lack of will to fight anymore until our last two years.” She had grown exhausted, and was struggling while dealing with her husband. In addition, finances were a major strain and the family almost ended up homeless.

“I had aged 20 years in two years … I had unidentified medical issues reeking [sic] havoc on my body. Dying consumed my thoughts. All I wanted to do was kill myself. I stopped eating. I barely drank anything. I lost 50 lbs in a month. I just wanted to die,” 
Mrs. Smith.

She credits being a mother and her family for not following through with her thoughts. With the help of outside professional support, as well as the blessing of being awarded a mortgage free home this past year, Mrs. Smith’s mental health has greatly improved. “They have saved the remaining sanity I possess,” said Mrs. Smith of her support.

Another caregiver, 

2014 Arizona Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow Melissa Comeau, turned to writing poetry as a way to cope with the stress and depression often associated with military caregiving. She recently published a book of poetry, “Sleeping With the War,” and now works to support other military caregivers through the Military Veteran Caregiver Network https://www.milvetcaregivernetwork.org (MVCN). The MVCN hosts a private, secure online forum for military caregivers of all war eras, as well as a public and comprehensive resource list and online military caregiving magazine.

Yet another caregiver I’ll call Mary Hall has supported her husband, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran through not only deployments, but post-military life. Mrs. Hall ‘s husband was on the phone when one of his former soldiers committed suicide. 

”For the longest time I had to keep reassuring my husband that there was nothing he could have done … My husband kept saying that had he stayed in contact more often this wouldn’t have happened.”

Mrs. Hall’s husband told her that it isn’t “just the person who commits suicide who is affected by that choice. Everyone who is left behind had to deal with that decision on a daily basis.”

Her husband also said, “We can’t minimize how one’s own experiences make them feel. Just because we might feel that their experiences are insignificant we never know how it has impacted that person.”

Mrs. Hall has also helped her husband cope with survivor’s guilt. Their young son tragically passed away and Mr. Hall blamed himself, saying that it was God punishing him for an incident that happened while deployed. Mr. Hall also blames himself for the death of another soldier on a deployment that he was unable to fulfill due to medical reasons. 

Mrs. Hall credits her faith and faith-based support system, as well as connecting with other military caregivers for giving her the strength to take care of not only herself but her husband as well.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or suicidal, please call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.

The journey of being a veteran or military caregiver can be overwhelming. But please remember that even during dark times, you are loved, wanted and needed.

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