"It's a problem that has been steadily growing," says Tennessee National Guard Major Beth Nielson.
A steady and sharp increase. Since 2004, suicide rates in the National Guard, including Air National Guard, are up 450%. In just one year, between 2009-2010, an 82% increase, and it continues to rise.
"Suicide is off the chart compared to the general population," says Jason Foundation President and CEO Clark Flatt.
In the Tennessee Guard, 47 soldiers have reported attempting or threatening suicide so far this year, compared to just 14 in 2010. Flatt is who the Tennessee National Guard is turning to for help.
"I really felt like deployment might be the key as I was looking as an outsider looking in," says Flatt. "But we see it's a lot more complicated than just deployment."
In fact, last year, less than 40% of the Guard's suicides were soldiers who had been deployed. Now, Flatt and the Tennessee National Guard are looking at other factors that the numbers may have in common.
"With the years we've been at war, it seems the numbers are increasing," says Major Nielson. "The stress is increasing. The problems our soldiers face when they return home, that is increasing. Jobless rates are increasing."
Then there's the challenge of juggling military responsibility with the day-to-day demands of civilian life. Sgt. Phillip McEver can relate to the stress that goes with wearing the uniform and being a family man. He just recently lost a close firend and fellow guardsman to suicide.
"He just had a lot of things going on in his life," says Sgt. McEver. "A lot of issues that he finally came to a point where he couldn't take it."
The first 2 years of McEver's marriage he was apart from his wife. A year of that time, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
"That's your job, that's what you have to do," says Sgt. McEver. "And your family jsut has to adjust and do what they have to do."
The difference between National Guard soldiers and active duty Army members are the resources available. Guardsmen typically ahve to seek their own help and pay for it out of their own pockets.
"This is terrible that our guardsmen, the people that at one time I think it was 50% of the total forces in Afghanistan were guardsmen," says Flatt. "They've given so much."
Flatt speculates that's one reason these rates are up, while suicides in the Army have dropped. The Army believes it's because the guard is not as much of a controlled group, and oftentimes guardsmen don't have the constant military interaction, comraderie and support.
"We're taking it seriously because one death is too many and we can save soldiers," says Major Nielson.
The Tennessee National Guard, 14,000 members strong, is launching a first of it's kind program to help. It's providing a virtual connection called J9 Mission.
"We're going to be providing with some companies," says Flatt. "Working with Colonel Jones and putting together some resources where hopefully we can take some of those stressers away. We can deal with them or find some resources so it never becomes that stressful situation that leads to suicide."
"It's important that we stress that," says Major Nielson. "That it's okay to get help and we want to take the stigma out of people that do seek help."
The Jason Foundation and the Guard are reluctant to release too many details about the J9 Mission until it launches next month. Since suicide rates in the National Guard are a problem country-wide, they expect this program could develop into a large-scale national resource.
Monday, November 21 2011, 07:24 PM CST
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