St. Cloud mayor shares pain of brother’s loss, ahead of event to raise awareness of veteran suicide

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis knows too well the pain and grief of losing a loved one to suicide.

His younger brother, Tom, a former Marine, took his own life last year.

“He had challenges really since his time in service and really never talked about it, and our family really never knew until after he had taken his life,” Kleis said. “Then you start thinking about things and signs that you missed.”

Since his brother’s death, Kleis, who served in the Air Force, has been speaking about the importance of reaching out to veterans who may be struggling with mental health issues.

Kleis will be one of the speakers at an event on Saturday aimed at raising awareness of veteran suicide and preventing more deaths.

“Suicide is 100 percent preventable,” he said. “I feel very strongly as somebody who lost my little brother … We need to raise awareness and we need to make sure that other families and veterans don't go through that pain."

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The event is a collaboration between the city of St. Cloud, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, health care provider CentraCare and the Central Minnesota Suicide Prevention Coalition.

The state Legislature created Minnesota Veteran Suicide Prevention and Awareness Day in 2019. This is the third annual event, which is held the first Saturday of October.

The event will be held starting at 11 a.m. at St. Cloud's Wilson Park, where a veterans memorial was dedicated last year. Those who attend will learn how to identify veterans at risk, and receive resources to help prevent suicide.

“It's a real issue that's happening,” said Kristi Charles, the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs’ veteran suicide prevention coordinator. “And it’s really just starting to have those conversations and … learning what some responses are when we're with a loved one who's struggling, and giving language to that.”

Minnesota loses about 100 veterans a year to suicide. Veteran deaths by suicide actually declined slightly last year. 

However, deaths attributed to alcohol and drug overdoses increased, said Paula Newinski, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care quality division.

“There can be suicides, but there can also be other deaths by destructive behaviors and choices that we need to bring attention to,” Newinski said.

Other speakers at Saturday’s event will be Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, and Laura Kunstleben, the St. Cloud VA’s community engagement and partnership coordinator.

Kleis said he hopes that talking more about suicide will help reduce stigma and encourage people to reach out to veterans.

“My brother was an amazing individual and served his nation, served his country, loved his family, but was struggling with something that we didn’t know,” he said. “Maybe if it was talked about more openly, maybe that might have made a difference.”

The event will be livestreamed on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Facebook page.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and you need immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK) or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Find more resources for veterans from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.