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Cross to bear
Suicides spike among war veterans after returning home


November 2012

In the fall of 2001, Milwaukee resident Herbert Raasch was a college student studying criminal justice. Then came Sept. 11, and his life was forever transformed.

Inspired by the heroism of police officers and firefighters, he joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard. In March 2003, three months after Saddam Hussein was captured, he was deployed to Iraq for 18 months. For some of that time he lived in one of Husseinís palaces.

"At first you were doing so many things that you didnít really think about it, but at night you would lie on your cot and have to think Ďwow,í" Raasch says. "(Hussein) was the reason that we were here and I was living in his house. I couldnít believe I was an actual part of it."

Raasch, 34, went on to earn an Army Commendation Medal for valor and had plans for a career in the service. When he returned to Milwaukee, though, he experienced what so many veterans do: the shock of returning to civilian society. While soldiers are away, society moves forward. Children get older, neighborhoods change. Memories are made ó and missed.

"In some ways, I feel like Iím still transitioning," Raasch says. "While you were away, someone had to be in charge and take care of the kids; you canít just assume the role you used to have right away."

Brandon Carlin, a Wauwatosa resident who served two tours of duty in Iraq, vividly remembers how it was difficult to relate to co-workers in his job as an industrial engineer. "People were so worried about little, petty things," he says. "I made it 11 months, but then I realized that I was different from my co-workers and not cut out for the corporate world."

Alarming Suicide Rate

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, a number of serious and heartbreaking issues have emerged with veterans. In late 2011, the United States Department of Defenseís American Forces Press Service reported that from 2005 to 2010 service members took their own lives at a rate of about one every 36 hours. While only 1 percent of Americans have served during the two wars, former service members represent about 20 percent of suicides in the United States.

Why is the rate of suicide so much higher than in previous wars? The increase has been attributed to a number of factors, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, multiple deployments and economic uncertainty.

"Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to getting help for mental health issues," says Gina Kangas, the suicide prevention coordinator at Milwaukee VA Medical Center and a licensed clinical social worker. "Veterans and soldiers may be perceived as being weak, so may avoid seeking treatment."

"Improvements in medical treatment have contributed to higher survivability," says Dr. M. Christina Hove, a clinical psychologist who works at the VA in trauma recovery services. "As a result, a higher proportion of veterans are returning with complicated physical and psychological needs."

The Pentagon, military leaders and the VA have all faced heavy criticism for this agonizing trend. The Pentagon established a Defensive Suicide Prevention Office last year and the VA has established a suicide hot line.

Warrior Mentality

Of course, for any program to work, veterans or their loved ones have to be willing to seek help. Breaking down the warrior mentality that serves the veteran so well in the military is an issue that remains at the forefront, regardless of the problemís severity. Whether it is seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder or coming into the VA for employment help or a general question, the key is understanding it is OK to ask for help.

Milwaukee resident Reginald Adams speaks from experience. He served in Germany from 1985 to 1988, but six years later he was homeless and addicted to drugs. He received help from VA services and now works for the VA as a medical supply specialist. "A lot of veterans have no clue that they can come to the VA for just about any issue they have," he says. "The biggest thing is not being afraid to ask for help. It doesnít make you less of a man to say I canít do it on my own."

Darcie Greuel, a VA nurse who served in Afghanistan and works on the Iraq and Afghanistan outreach team, says she stresses to veterans that it is OK to experience issues with the transition to civilian life. In fact, it is normal. "Veterans are on edge 24-7 in a combat zone. To come down from that and be a normal person or student can be difficult," she says.

When veterans return, they may appear fine on the outside ó but, on the inside, an internal war is still raging. "Our veterans have experienced extraordinarily intense and uncommon situations while they were deployed," Hove says. "We (need) to try to understand with a sense of empathy and open-mindedness."

Since veterans understand better than anyone what itís like to go to war and come back, group therapy can often be particularly effectively. "There is (naturally) going to be a clash between living a military life in combat zone and being effective in the civilian world," says Dr. Catherine Coppolillo, a clinical psychologist on the Afghanistan and Iraq outreach team at the VA. "Normalizing what they are going through is huge. When they can sit in a group and realize ĎIím not alone with this,í it can be really powerful Ö to facilitate connections with others who have shared these intense and unique life experiences."

This is one of the hallmarks of Vets Journey Home, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that offers weekend programs for veterans to talk with other veterans and civilians about their service ó and begin to heal lingering emotional wounds. "Our groups are small and each person gets as much time as they need," says Patricia Clason, co-founder of Vets Journey Home.

There are a number of other effective programs that provide therapy for veterans. One that Raasch has enjoyed, in particular, is a guitar class offered by UW-Milwaukee senior lecturer Bev Belfer in a partnership between Guitar for Vets and the Peck School of the Arts. Veterans who attend six classes receive their own guitar, gig bag, tuner and method book.

It is not uncommon for the students in the class to give the veterans a round of applause for their service. Belferís brother, Daryl J. Eigen, was awarded three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam and recently authored "A Hellish Place of Angels: Con Thien: One Manís Journey."

Belfer loves watching the way many of the veterans have an inner peace when strumming the guitar. "They develop their skills, and playing the guitar just takes them away from everything else," she says. "Itís a beautiful thing."

Career Opportunities

Veterans are often young and put their education or professional careers on hold to serve. The Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 provides unemployed veterans with up to one year of additional benefits to qualify for jobs in high-demand sectors and provides disabled veterans with additional VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits.

In Milwaukee, the VA works directly with employers to find and promote jobs for veterans. One specific program, Compensated Work Therapy, has contractual partnerships with a number of area employers, including Johnson Controls.

Additionally, the VA has a close relationship with a local and innovative property rehab and management company, Property Vets, which is committed to hiring military veterans as contractors and laborers. Founder Sue Loomans hopes to expand the concept to other markets. "I saw veteran underemployment as a big issue and so is distressed property and foreclosures," she says. "We try to put these two problems together with one solution. Vets make great employees and team members. They have teamwork and camaraderie, and theyíre dedicated to producing great results."

Carlin went to the VA looking for help finding part-time work in construction with a schedule that did not interfere with his classes at UW-Milwaukee. Property Vets proved to be the perfect fit. "The VA really worked with me to meet this tough request," he says.

Michael Roelse, a Sheboygan resident who first joined the military in 1981, also has been impressed with breath of services and responsiveness of the VA. He says the VA has improved markedly in recent years. "Everything still looks the same at the VA, but itís not," says Roelse, a member of the Wounded Warrior Project. "You can really tell the difference in the people over the years. I have not had one bad experience. These are stellar people taking care of you."

In 2010, Roelse sustained multiple concussions, major body trauma and lost partial vision in his right eye from three rocket attacks in Afghanistan. Since then, heís needed four surgeries and has to battle through constant physical pain. But one would never know Roelse is suffering. Even when the pain forces him to grimace, Roelse smiles through it. "Iíve had it better than some and worse than others," he says. "I just feel fortunate that I was able to come home."

As for Raasch, even as he goes about his daily business, his service is never far from his mind. "Every time I see a flag in the air it reminds me that I was part of something big, something substantial," he says. "It was an honor to be over there for my country. I served with such great men and women in the military. I think about it all the time."

The transition for Raasch ó and all veterans ó continues. 


This story ran in the November2012 issue of: