Raising awareness of veterans’ suicides

John Kubal/Register: In their office in Brown Hall, Russ Chavez, director of the South Dakota State University Veterans Affairs Office, and Connie Johnson, coordinator for Veterans Affairs, work on assisting student veterans on campus.

Warrior Wellness Committee sponsoring speakers

BROOKINGS – Concerned about veterans’ suicides in South Dakota, two veterans are working to raise awareness throughout the Brookings and campus community. 

Russ Chavez, director of the South Dakota State University Veterans Affairs Office, assisted by Connie Johnson, coordinator for Veterans Affairs, have formed a “Warrior Wellness Committee.”

In addition to Chavez and Johnson, committee members include the two professors of military science in the Air Force ROTC and Army ROTC programs; Jessica McLaughlin, a counselor in the Wellness Center and a veteran herself; Andrea Bjornstad, assistant professor and Extension mental health specialist; and one student, who had been friendly with a Brown Hall resident student who had committed suicide.

A major piece of the committee’s mission to date has been the formation of a “Warrior Wellness Speaker Series.” Three veterans have been scheduled to date and more could be forthcoming.

On Oct. 9, Stacy Bare, a former Brookings High School graduate (class of 1996), former Army captain and veteran of the Iraq War, suffered from PTSD, depression and drug addiction and contemplated suicide when he returned home after he left the Army.

His salvation and a life change came when a friend introduced him to rock climbing. Bare in turn introduced other veterans to the healing to be found in outdoor adventure activities. To promote those activities, he founded Veterans’ Expeditions and Adventure Not War.

On Nov. 7, Craig Tschetter, a native South Dakotan and Marine Corps combat veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, shared his own traumatic experiences, including PTSD, that he continues to struggle with today. He detailed his experiences in a book: “Fifteen Minutes Ago, A Vietnam War Memoir.”

And at 6 p.m. Nov. 20, Maj. Christopher Mercado, Army Times Soldier of the Year in 2017, will speak at the SDSU Alumni Center. He’s a co-founder of Objective Zero App, and he sees his mission as the prevention of veterans’ suicides.

Particulars about Mercado can be found online at www.armytimes.com. He invites topics for discussion during his presentation at SDSU. Contact either Chavez or Johnson at 688-4700 or 688-5319 to submit a topic or for additional information about Mercado’s app or his presentation.

High rates here

Both Chavez and Johnson are well aware of the “high rates of veterans’ suicides in South Dakota.”

“In 2017, last year, South Dakota actually reached its highest rate of veterans’ suicides ever recorded,” Johnson noted. However, Chavez added, national data on veterans’ suicide rates – 22 daily nationwide – needs to be put in perspective.

“What we did find out about that is they do clump a lot of statistics in there,” he explained. “So you could find a veteran that got out of the military 40 years ago and nothing that had anything to do with his non-combat time or anything and he committed suicide; he gets put in a lot of those statistics. So they’re a little bit muddy.”

He added that he didn’t know if there were any attempts to better clarify those numbers. Maybe 20 or 21 veterans’ suicides a day would be more accurate when tied to programs such as those his office and other veterans’ organization are running. 

A challenge to those organizations is that veterans who might be contemplating suicide know the answers to give that might turn away efforts to reach them. “They know what to tell people to get people to leave them alone,” Chavez said.

“We’ve had three suicides in the dorms or associated with somebody that was living in a dorm,” Chavez added, in bringing the prevention issue closer to home. 

PTSD: still taboo? 

“It was enough to do more,” he said, of actions aimed at suicide prevention. “So we decided to start doing some triage on the other side of the suicide; the last one was an Army ROTC cadet that was in the Reserves.

“So he’d been getting all the resiliency training he was supposed to get. Matter of fact, he’d been getting double doses of it.”

That need to take more action led to scheduling the “Warrior Wellness Speaker Series: It would have a lot to do with people that had thought about suicide, resiliency, preventive maintenance if you will for suicide.”

Despite there being more of an awareness of PTSD, is it still a taboo topic to approach with combat veterans?

“It’s difficult to actually know if somebody is struggling or not until you talk to them one-on-one,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to just bring somebody in and start asking them questions like do you have PTSD.

“We want to create a welcoming program providing a place for people to come to. You’ve got to have relationship first; then you can talk about some other things in their lives that they need to clean up. Most times they will not come forward and seek help.”

Johnson, an Army combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who left military service in 2005, said that “PTSD was not really a tag term yet. But what was happening is that these veterans that were coming back from the wars, they were killing their families, they were killing their children, they were killing themselves. And it was taboo.”

Chavez and Johnson want veterans, students and the Brookings-SDSU town-and-gown community to know that the SDSU Veterans Affairs Office offers a wide range of services, that include: Veterans’ Writing and Book Club; job services; Horses for Heroes; golf tournament; Warrior Week (events during the week leading up to Veterans Day); and the Armed Forces Association.

The Veteran Affairs Office has its own dedicated spaces in Brown Hall on the SDSU campus. Its phone numbers are 688-4700 and 688-5319.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]

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