When Rick Brown came back to Chapel Hill from the Vietnam War, he hid his service as an Army helicopter pilot. There was a lot of hostility toward the armed forces at the time, he said.
Indeed Brown felt guilty about his Army service for much of his life, he said Monday at a summit on mental health held by the Durham VA Health Care System and the Durham County Public Health Department.
Brown was 56 before he first set foot in the VA hospital, but he found understanding there in a peer support group.
“I was for a long time resigned to a life of pain and confusion and isolation,” Brown said. “The VA opened the doors to a better future. I changed negativity to gratitude. I am thankful for my time in the military because it has given me such a variety of life experiences that I could have experienced nowhere else.”
Suicide prevention is now the VA’s highest priority among the nation’s 20 million veterans, 2 million of them women, according to a VA National Suicide Data Report released last month.
An estimated 20.6 veterans, including 3.8 active-duty service members, killed themselves each day in 2015.
Male veterans were 1.3 times more likely than non-veteran adult men to commit suicide, the report said. Female veterans were twice as likely as non-veteran adult women to kill themselves.
John Brown, an Army veteran, said that at one time he felt shame at having graduated from West Point.
“I did not believe in getting help,” he said.
But with his wife’s support, he eventually sought help at an ashram, or secluded retreat in the tradition of Indian religions.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I was able to share my story. I was able to talk about my past openly.” He hopes to set up a similar ashram locally to help others, including non-veterans.
Wayne Swan, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, also said his wife played a vital role after years of isolation and drug and alcohol abuse that eventually landed him in jail in 2010.
In 2012, she said she would leave him if he didn’t get help.
“We didn’t know what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was then,” he said of the 1970s, when he returned early in his deployment from Vietnam after seeing his sergeant’s head explode when he was shot, one of many scenes of violence that would haunt him years later.
He had hoped to make a career out of the Marines, but wartime injury nixed that plan. Swan also began abusing drugs, especially opium, in Vietnam, and that habit would follow him home.
He credits the VA with turning his life around, treating his PTSD and helping him get sober. He still suffers from nightmares from the war, though.
“I thought about suicide before,” he said. “I was losing my family. Didn’t have a job. Didn’t have money coming in.” But he said his attitude has turned around: “Life’s tough, but you got to keep going on.”
Durham VA Health Care System Director Paul Crews opened the summit expressing his hope that the VA can work with the community to eradicate veteran suicide.
“Our vision is to reduce veteran suicide to zero,” he said. “And I think it is an ambitious goal, but it’s a necessary one because one life lost is one life too many.”
Gary Cunha, who is the suicide prevention coordinator for the Durham VA, echoed Crews’ goal. “I hear these statistics, whether it’s 20 a day, 22 a day,” he said. “If you’ve lost someone you love to suicide, one is too many.”
Cunha said that when he got out of the Marines and enrolled in college, he had his own struggles. An older fellow Marine veteran noticed that Cunha was having a hard time and helped him get back on track.
“When you get out, there’s no reverse boot camp,” Cunha said.
Other topics that speakers covered Monday included holistic medicine, the use of acupuncture to treat mental illness, and animal therapy.
Call or text for help
Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, should call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, at 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or send a text message to 838255.