Minn. head says Guard singled out over suicides

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ST. PAUL  — The Minnesota National Guard has attracted “unsubstantiated notoriety” for the number of military suicides, the state adjutant general told a joint legislative hearing Monday while urging funding for suicide prevention programs.

Maj. Gen. Rick Nash told lawmakers that suicide is increasing among the entire population, not just the military. He noted that since 2007, 24 members of the Minnesota National guard have died by suicide, though two-thirds of them had never deployed.

“That’s an important detail because it’s a common assumption that suicides are the result of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not true,” Nash said.

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The two dozen suicides are more than any other state, but Nash said only two of the deaths occurred among active duty soldiers.

“On the two days per month that the part-time force assembles, I can say with certainty, a soldier or airman at risk of suicide is actively engaged by his or her battle buddy or wingman. Our team is trained and ready to link that service member with the resources he or she needs,” Nash said.

So far in 2011, 34 National Guard soldiers have taken advantage of a program to intervene with soldiers who may be at risk of suicide, Nash said. He was briefly overcome when he spoke of one soldier who came forward “after spending the previous evening with a shotgun on his lap.”

Nash said suicide is a statewide problem, and he urged lawmakers to fund suicide prevention efforts. But he also said the Minnesota Legislature should be looking at ways to eliminate some of the contributing factors. He noted high unemployment among veterans, and noted that 18 percent of the women in the Minnesota National Guard are unemployed.

“Why are we unemployed after all this time serving our country?” he asked.

Greg Roberts of Bemidji, a sergeant who served in Bosnia and Iraq, told the hearing that returning soldiers face a changed home front.

“When you’re gone for nearly two years, you spend so much time thinking about home. It’s one of the things that keeps you going on bad days. When you get home, it’s not what you remember it to be. It’s the same, but you’re different. Being home is the second war nobody talks about,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he didn’t get much of a chance to “meld our military lives and our civilian lives.”

“We got put on a bus, sent home, and that was it,” he said.

After he returned to Minnesota, Roberts said he “drank profusely” for three or four months.

“Nobody around me I can relate to, I didn’t feel like anybody understood what I was going through with the exception of my Army buddies I served with. Our experience was unique,” he said. “But I was not in a position to have contact with them. Due to the nature of PTSD, you avoid anything that reminds you of war.”

The one day they didn’t all avoid each other, Roberts said, was the day after a colleague killed himself.