On the heels of an intensive campaign to prevent soldiers from committing suicide, the Minnesota National Guard is hoping to continue reaching at-risk veterans.
Senior National Guard leaders have traveled throughout Minnesota since September, teaching Guard members how to recognize the symptoms that indicate colleagues might to try to take their own lives. To meet the growing demand for services, veterans advocates hope more funding will come from the Legislature to fund the Case Management, Outreach, Referral and Education program, or CORE program.
Minnesota is home to more than 380,000 veterans. According to data from Veterans Administration facilities, 126 veterans served by V.A. hospitals, clinics and other sites in Minneapolis; St Cloud, Minn.; and Fargo and Sioux Falls, N.D., committed suicide in the last decade. But Veterans Administration officials say that could be an undercount, since many veterans do not receive services at the VA.
Eight-year Marine Corps veteran Jason Christiansen, 35, of St. Paul, is among those veterans who have come close to taking his life. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, he lost his job as a technician at an auto dealer.
"When I got laid off my bills all piled up," he said. "I couldn't pay anything, so everything I had: my credit cards, my car loan, everything all went into debt collection."
Christiansen finally found a similar job, but for less than half his old pay. His financial situation quickly spiraled out of control. To avoid calls from debt collectors he stopped answering his phone. He became depressed, suffered from anxiety and was distraught over losing his job and his financial difficulties.
His identity as a Marine made being unemployed unbearable because he felt worthless and a drain on society.
"At one point, I was sitting there with a gun in my mouth," he said.
But at that moment, an instant message from a sick friend popped up on his computer screen and Christiansen didn't go through with his plan to kill himself. His girlfriend pushed him to seek help.
That's how he found the CORE program.
"It was instantaneous; it was like this giant weight lifted off my shoulders," he said. "I felt like I had a chance. Before, it felt like I had no chance at all, and without it I can honestly tell you I have no idea what I was going to do."
Now that he has a better job, he and his girlfriend plan to marry.
The CORE program was started by Veterans Affairs and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota to help military personnel, veterans and their families with medical care and mental health, substance abuse, financial and job counseling — whatever they need to make it in civilian life. Services are free.
CORE aims to address the kinds of serious issues that can lead to even worse problems down the road, like suicide. While many of the veterans it serves are eligible for services through the VA, the system is complicated. People often don't know what they're eligible for or how to find the help they need.
Mary Beth Galey, director of counseling for Lutheran Social Services, said the CORE program is especially valuable for outstate military members, who may live miles from a VA facility.
"This offers a greater catchment for a bigger group of people than a traditional military service would offer and I think that is what has actually made it so popular," she said. "It offers services to a wider net of people, the veteran feels like there is a bigger opportunity to get support."
Galey said most clients need help with depression or other mental health issues. But counselors often help them with other problems. The program has served about 5,000 people since 2008, and services are available at non-military facilities.
The Minnesota National Guard keeps its own data on suicide. Officials report that 22 members of the guard have killed themselves since 2007, when the force began keeping complete statistics. Prior to that, a suicide was counted only if it happened while a guardsman was training. So far this year, there have been four suicides. A fifth is under investigation.
In recent years the Minnesota National Guard has been battling the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems. The guard has launched a host of programs to help troops be more resilient during and after deployment.
Still, Lt. Col. John Morris, State Chaplain for the Minnesota Army National Guard, acknowledges that suicide remains a challenge. He said the Minnesota National Guard's suicide profile is young and male.
"For a host of reasons they lose hope and in our case the profile of a person who loses hope is a male under the age of 25, wrestling with relationship issues, sometimes alcohol, sometimes finance on top of that and the despair leads to the tragic solution of taking their lives," he said.
Morris said more needs to be done to connect these young veterans with help, and with good civilian jobs. The need will be critical as thousands of Minnesota soldiers complete deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and return home to a dismal job market.
Need help? Any veteran or family member can call (888) 881-8261, or (612) 879-5320 in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and be directed to services nearest their location. Help is also available online via the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and Lutheran Social Services.