Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Battling Suicide

Burying a Hero: Tyler Westbrook funeral    (photo: Jan Barry)

Since the deliberate crashing of airliners on September 11, 2001, the signature way of death in the Global War on Terrorism is suicide. In the battle against Islamist suicide bombers, the US sent military forces into Afghanistan and Iraq on what became essentially suicidal missions—patrol the same roads and paths over and over until hidden explosives go off, killing or maiming our troops, over and over and over. Bomb, assault, hit with drone missile fire house after house, village after village, city after city, year after year--creating outraged survivors seeking revenge.

Long hidden amid a decade of mayhem was a ghost army of US troops who shot themselves or otherwise committed suicide. Once the suicide toll was made public, these fuller casualty lists showed that far more of our soldiers and veterans were killing themselves than died in combat.

In recent years, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued, the suicide toll has risen from an estimated 18 veterans per day to 22—or nearly one per hour—according to periodic updates by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The horrendous impact of these once hidden war casualties hit home this past weekend for a friend’s family in West Virginia. The loss for Marcia Westbrook and her family of 31-year-old Tyler, an Army sergeant first class who served two tours in Iraq, was staggering. Adding to the grief for Marcia is that she’s an activist with Military Families Speak Out, who has worked for years to try to convince the government to end these wars and provide more assistance for veterans wounded in so many ways.

But what in the past might have been a quietly grief-struck private funeral became a region-wide outpouring of support by hundreds of mourners. And many people in the crowded gatherings at the funeral home, the high school gym and at the community cemetery vowed to help address this national epidemic killing off so many of our men and women who served in military operations.

Indeed, the grief and jolt to do something in the wake of the self-destructive death of a highly decorated soldier buried, with full military honors, as a hometown hero quickly spread across the country.

“As some of you have heard, last week Coach Nick received some tough news,” noted a statement on the website for Crossfit Suisun City in California, which was widely shared on Facebook. “His high school and college friend and wrestling partner, Tyler Westbrook, took his own life. 31 years old and an accomplished U.S. Army Veteran, he served his country honorably, doing things most of us will never see, know, or should experience. He is a hometown hero in Coach Nick’s home state in Williamstown, West Virginia and is survived by his wife and one year old son.

“We live in a world where PTSD, suicide and the effects of ‘the longest war’ are taking it’s toll on the men and women who have served our country. The Department of Veteran Affairs has released that approximately 22 veterans a day take their own lives. It’s 22 Too Many,” the statement continued, providing a hot link to an organization addressing this issue. “This Wednesday, September 9th, during ALL classes we will be performing a WOD we’ve created in his honor and in memory of all the veterans who have taken their own lives to show that we appreciate their dedication to protecting and serving our country.”

A very similar sentiment was expressed at Tyler Westbrook’s funeral service in the Williamstown High School gymnasium. The place was packed with neighbors and friends who remembered him as a star athlete, joined by a Patriot Guard motorcycle honor guard that escorted his funeral procession from the Akron, Ohio airport, American Legion members who saluted his flag-draped casket, military buddies who drove for hours from Colorado and North Carolina, and a Special Forces honor guard in full dress uniforms. Tyler died while stationed with a Special Forces unit at Fort Carson, Colorado.

“Tyler’s service to his country cost him his life,” Chaplain (Major) Joe Ward said in his remarks, which he proclaimed to the crowd were conveyed “on behalf of the United States Army.” Ward added that Tyler was a casualty of “hidden wounds.”

Further adding to the tragedy is that Fort Carson has hosted suicide prevention programs since 2009.

"The stigma of suicide must go away," Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, the commanding general of Fort Carson at the time, said at a press conference in January 2009 called to discuss the latest suicide of a soldier assigned to that post and a new Army program focused on suicide prevention. "This is not just an Army issue and concern. To me, it's a national concern."

Commemorating the death of Spc. Larry C. Applegate, a decorated soldier who served in Iraq and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Graham said: "This young soldier died fighting a different battle… I lost a son fighting a different battle to suicide - and we are saddened by it."

Warning Signs

The post newspaper, the Fort Carson Mountaineer, added:  “Graham's son, Kevin, a top ROTC cadet, committed suicide in 2003. Since then, Graham and his wife, Carol, have spoken out about the importance of seeking help and of recognizing the warning signs of suicide.”

The latest Army initiative was conveyed in a news release issued from Fort Lee, Virginia a week after Tyler Westbrook killed himself in Colorado with a gunshot wound.

“This year, some of the data from the ‘Army Study to Assess Risk and Resiliency in Service members,’ or STARRS, was released, and it is helping to drive changes in the way the Army views suicide.

“Several risk factors for suicide occur among civilian and military populations including: an existing diagnosis of depression or severe anxiety; recent behavioral health hospitalization; alcohol or substance abuse; chronic pain or a serious medical condition; experiencing a highly stressful life event; relationship conflicts; and bullying at work or among peers.

“In addition, Army STARRS showed some military-specific risk factors - i.e. being an enlisted Soldier, having a recent demotion or having deployed - put troops at a higher risk for suicidal acts. …."

The Army announcement goes on to say: "Those interested in learning more about suicide prevention and intervention, should consider attending an applied suicide intervention skills training session offered on Fort Lee. The free, two-day program is designed to help equip community members with more advanced skills for intervening in suicide.”


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