Minnesota National Guard officials say they're doing everything they can to try to stop soldiers from committing suicide.
During a legislative hearing on the issue Monday, some friends and relatives of soldiers who have killed themselves warned lawmakers that the system still has big holes that need to be filled.
The Minnesota National Guard began tracking suicide data in 2007. Since then, 24 citizen soldiers have taken their own lives. That's the most of any state. Oregon was second with 16 suicides. During a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees that oversee state military and veterans issues, Adjutant General Rick Nash told lawmakers that suicide takes a tremendous toll on families, and on surviving soldiers.
"As warriors, we can accept that some of us will fall in battle at the hands off the enemy," Nash said. "But it is devastating when one of us perishes by taking his or her own life, because it undermines the cohesion and the morale in the entire unit."
The circumstances of each death are unique, but there are some similarities, Nash said. All of the soldiers had personal struggles involving mental health, relationships, substance abuse, unemployment, financial or legal problems, he said. Nash downplayed post-traumatic stress disorder as a factor, because two-thirds of the suicides involved soldiers who had never been deployed. He further explained that the ranking is the result of the Minnesota Guard's more aggressive approach to identifying and reporting suicides.
"As a military leader, it's always my duty to accurately report to the citizens of Minnesota and to the United States the status of their National Guard, whether it's good or bad news," Nash said. "I believe that because good data on suicide is not always readily available, the Minnesota National Guard has gained undue notoriety without substantiated basis for comparison."
The Guard has taken major steps to better train its soldiers to identify and intervene with colleagues who may be suicidal, Nash said. However, help is not always readily available for a part-time force, he said. The state Department of Veterans Affairs and Lutheran Social Services offer some key ongoing help, including free crisis counseling.
Still, some soldiers fall through the cracks. Greg Roberts of Bemidji, a former Minnesota National Guardsman, said he was hurting from post-traumatic stress when he returned home four years ago. During his testimony via Skype, Roberts said there was no one to help when he needed it.
"You know, like these re-integration drills that they tried to have. I skipped out on them. Did anybody call me? No. Did anybody say 'Hey, you need to come to this, you're accountable. Why didn't you come? Are you OK? Are you at home sucking on the wrong end of a 12 gauge?' " Roberts said. "Nobody asked me that. There was no contact. There was nothing."
Even when the military offered help, some soldiers didn't take it. Mary Clare Lindberg said her son Army Sgt. Benjamin Miller, who committed suicide three years ago, turned down an offer of counseling. Lindberg said her son didn't want to appear weak in the eyes of his fellow soldiers.
"I wonder, why was he the one permitted to make such a significant decision as to whether he needed help or not? Is it not the decision that should be made by a trained, qualified mental psychologist, who could have obtained the treatment he so desperately needed?" Lindberg said.
State military officials warned that the re-integration issues they currently deal with will only grow larger as men and women return home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rep. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, chair of the House Veterans Services Division, said he thinks the hearing will help raise awareness about soldier suicides, but he doesn't expect any legislative remedies when the 2012 session begins next month. Anderson said it is up to Congress to provide the money needed to solve the problem, since most of the National Guard's funding comes from the federal government.