As Minnesota’s National Guard members return from their deployment to Kuwait, the state can expect the problems faced by returning veterans to increase to a “tsunami” level.
Topping that list is the potential for suicide.
Minnesota has the highest number of suicides among its Guard members than any other state, Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general for the Minnesota National Guard, told a joint meeting of the House Veterans Services Division and the Senate State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee.
Since 2007, 24 Minnesota National Guard members have taken their own life. (Oregon is second at 16.)
Last summer, a Woodbury Marine was laid to rest after an apparent suicide in California. In March 2007, a Prior Lake Marine’s suicide prompted a VA suicide prevention bill.
Nash said the incidents have occurred among members who had never been deployed, debunking the common assumption that suicide is related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The essential fact is suicide rates have been increasing, not only those in the military. … Suicide rates in Minnesota are five times higher than homicides,” Nash said.
Coming Soon: Veterans Court
The Washington County Attorney’s Office is in the midst of taking steps to create a program for veterans to help and monitor them when they return stateside.
Anecdotally speaking, soldiers are basically isolated in today’s society, said George Kuprian, assistant Washington County attorney, who is also a veteran.
“However, returning veterans have it worse because they are also carrying all the baggage from the war with them,” Kuprian said. “In the war, these soldiers are somebody. They have a very important job to do upon which they are totally focused together with a very strong support group.”
The environment they are in—“death and destruction”—can play a role, Kuprian said. “But you have the rest of your unit, which is going through the same thing, as a support group.”
“In addition,” he said, “you don’t have the time to dwell on it. You come back to the world, and you are basically alone, isolated amongst people who don’t understand. Oh, they listen and sympathize but they can’t empathize because they haven’t gone through it.”
General Nash’s report is a poignant view of the symptoms many vets returning from service face when assimilating back to civilian life, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said.
“These men and women face a loneliness no one but a combat veteran can understand,” he said. “You go from a combat-style life to living in mom and dad’s house. It’s crazy. ... It’s the definition of loneliness and alienation.”
Add to this the inability to get a job.
“It’s a kick in the teeth when they come home to a 30-percent unemployment rate,” Orput said. “It’s a complete alienation when you’re called a hero, but come to find you can’t even flip burgers. Is there any surprise we are seeing these guys in criminal court?”
Kuprian said that situation can create an atmosphere of resentment.
“They told you, you’re a hero but they won’t give you a job,” he said. “The past death and destruction begin to come into play, so you chemically try and wipe away the memories. But, it is the isolation of dealing with this by yourself.”
The stress and the isolation leads to drinking and drug abuse, which invariably leads to problems at home, in the saloon and on the roads, Orput said.
“If a veteran had a hard time finding a job while suffering from alienation, post-traumatic stress disorder and assimilating to civilian life, try getting a job with a felony conviction on top of that,” Orput said. “There’s no wonder why these guys are killing themselves.”
The military veterans diversion program—which is expected to roll out in Washington County in January—aims to alleviate some of that isolation.
Veterans Court, as it has been dubbed, is a program staffed by veterans who are prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and mentor, as well as Veterans Affairs officials and members of other veterans support programs.
“Although the soldier comes in committing a crime, our program offers help—somebody there to see him or her through,” Kuprian said. “To point the way and make sure he or she gets to this help; and if not, there is someone there to make sure he or she shows up.
“This diversion program takes the individual out of his or her isolation, and makes him or her get help and shows him or her where to get help and monitors his or her actions,” he said.
Many factors contribute to a person taking their own life, including unemployment, family breakups and financial stresses, Nash said.
Minnesota’s high unemployment rate among veterans (approximately 12 percent) has Nash concerned. While recently in Kuwait visiting Minnesota’s National Guard contingent, he learned that 28 percent of the force would be facing unemployment when they return in 2012.
“These are alarming figures. This is one of the known factors for suicide,” he said. “We will never leave a comrade on the battlefield, and we realize there is a battlefield at home, and we will do everything we can to not leave a comrade to die by suicide.”
Veteran unemployment is compounded by the perception that many returning military suffer from PTSD, Nash said. Additionally, the military’s dependence on civilian soldiers leaves employers nervous that a Guard member could be called up at any time.
An Emotional Testimony
During emotional testimony, Greg Roberts, a staff sergeant from Bemidji, spoke via Skype about how difficult it was to return to civilian life, especially after the suicide of a close military friend.
“When you are gone for nearly two years, you spend so much time thinking of home, and when you get home, it is not what you remembered it to be,” Roberts said. “It is the second war that nobody talks about.”
The Minnesota House of Representatives Session Daily contributed to this report.