These U.S. military veterans are still helping one another survive
The day she took her life six years ago, her pockets stuffed with inspirational sayings on pieces of paper, combat veteran Deana Martorella Orellana went to a Veterans Affairs center and asked for help.
One year ago, on the day he stood before the Lincoln Memorial and shot himself in the head, Airman Kenneth Omar Santiago tried to get a counseling appointment on base.
And for months before he ripped off his helmet and ran into the massive rotors of a Seahawk helicopter to end his life, Brandon Caserta begged for mental health help.
These are three people I profiled in stories about military suicide in the past year, and they all had something in common. Each of them did exactly what the campaigns and counselors and public service announcements tell people in crisis to do: They asked for help.
The U.S. military is clearly not answering their pleas.
“You have a task that is almost insurmountable,” said Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Tex.), during a congressional hearing in September on preventing veteran suicides.
There were 6,146 veteran suicide deaths in 2020, which was 343 fewer than in 2019, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The deaths decreased that year after two decades of steep increases.
During that hearing, members of Congress repeated horror stories they had heard from veterans trying to access mental health care. Like the veteran living in Maine who was told to go to New York for his counseling appointments, or a pregnant veteran in Illinois facing a $50, out-of-pocket, upfront charge for mental health screening at her VA, something even private insurers don’t ask.
The military and veterans affairs departments are struggling to manage a nationwide, escalating mental health crisis that is paired with a pronounced shortage of mental health professionals. That September congressional hearing went into scheduling procedures and staffing and paperwork that goes into getting help.
But it’s a much broader issue. Just ask veterans.
“In my opinion, it is because we’re trying to address it reactively, primarily through the lens of mental health,” wrote combat veteran Cole Lyle, who tried to take his life not long after leaving the Marine Corps.
He sees prevention counseling before crisis counseling as more effective. “Dealing with regular civilian things like unemployment, relationship stress, lack of purpose, acute financial concern, substance abuse, etc., are all a part of the human condition that can be exacerbated by service-related issues,” he wrote on his organization’s blog.
So veterans are doing what they were trained to do: standing in the gap.
“How do we challenge this? It’s through community-based healing,” said Scott Hyder, the founder and president of the nonprofit Hidden Battles Foundation, which is based in the Massachusetts hometown of Santiago, the Air Force service member who killed himself at the Lincoln Memorial on Nov. 11 last year.
Santiago posted a long, despondent message on social media explaining his depression and desperation. What followed was a heartbreaking, time-stamped string of pleas from friends who read the posts and didn’t know he was suffering, begging him to call them. As they were posting, it was too late.
“A lot has happened since Kenny’s passing,” Hyder said. “988 [the nationwide suicide hotline that got 100,000 calls the first week it went live in September] has been introduced, a lot of organizations have been focusing more on mental health, which is great.”
But what really needs to change is the approach. The military can’t possibly succeed by parachuting into mental health crises with government-issued counseling to act like tourniquets for suicidal ideation. Some have suggested that mental health be treated like physical health — ongoing testing and training, just like PT qualifications. By making counseling sessions mandatory, any stigma is dropped.
Someone may be “too proud and too strong and afraid to reach out and ask for help,” Hyder said. “And then when they get to the point where people like Kenny, they do reach out … but it’s hard to get somebody help in a couple of hours. And then it’s too late.”
Hyder’s group thrives on peer support and group therapy.
They have a Tuesday night meeting at the local YMCA — sort of like an Alcoholics Anonymous group — where vets can gather and talk about their feelings, understand they aren’t alone, and lean on each other because who else will understand where they’re coming from?
They organize veteran hikes, coffee, and even painting classes. It’s a safe place were their dark humor and demons are understood. And Hyder said he is always hearing from folks across the nation who want to organize a similar group.
Combat veteran Danny Mayberry is in touch with Hyder. Mayberry is in Hawaii, and he hosts support groups weekly through his podcast, “1 Mile, 1 Veteran.”Each podcast is 22 minutes long, about the time it takes to walk a mile. That’s what he is hoping veterans in crisis are doing when they listen to his stories of hope, struggle, and resilience.
“If suicide can spread fast, so can awareness — it can spread faster,” Mayberry said in the opening of his latest installment. “Comfort can spread faster, the worth can spread faster, and hope, that can spread faster as well.”
Let’s go back to Lyle, who found his salvation from his PTSD outside of the usual military and VA channels.
After he tried to kill himself, after the pills, and the talk therapy that wasn’t working, a 70-pound girl saved him.
“She gave me a small sense of purpose,” he said of Kaya, a German shepherd trained as a service dog who cost $10,000. Lyle has since helped write and pass the PAWS Act (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers), which helps veterans struggling with PTSD train and own Kayas of their own without the cost.
There is no single answer to the problems people encounter after service. As a starting point, Lyle wants to ensure that their voices are heard by people in a position to help.
Lyle is now executive director of Mission Roll Call, an advocacy group that works on having veterans’ voices heard in shaping policy on Capitol Hill. And a lot of those voices — 53 percent in their most recent survey — say the federal government “has not been very effective” in addressing the suicide crisis.
They are following one of the best lessons in the Battle School from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” which summarizes centuries of military experience: “Soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.”