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  • So on May 6 of 2019,

  • the sun was shining, the sky was blue,

  • clouds were that puffy white.

  • It was a perfect spring day.

  • I was walking back to my office,

  • and my phone rang.

  • And it was one of my lieutenants.

  • I said, "Hey, John.

  • How are you?"

  • He said, "Sir, I'm good.

  • But I've got some bad news."

  • He said our executive officer died that weekend.

  • We went back and forth,

  • "What do you mean, what are you talking about?"

  • I asked him what happened.

  • He said, "Sir, he killed himself."

  • I walked around my office for a couple of hours in a complete fog,

  • trying to understand what had happened, why.

  • I had just communicated with him a few months earlier.

  • And I had no idea that this officer was in trouble.

  • And I fault myself as a leader for not having known that.

  • I went on this process of trying to figure out

  • why, what's happening in the veteran community,

  • why are these things going on.

  • I read reports from the Department of Veteran Affairs,

  • Department of Defense,

  • I've read national studies on mental health

  • and the issues associated with it.

  • I'm going to share with you some of the things I found out.

  • Department of Veteran Affairs has taken the lead on veteran suicide,

  • and it's actually their number one priority.

  • Based on the reports they have and the numbers that I've calculated,

  • between 2001 and 2019,

  • during the time of the Global War on Terror,

  • my approximation is there's 115,000 veterans

  • who have died by their own hands.

  • I also looked at the Department of Defense report

  • that lists casualties.

  • This particular report

  • lists the casualties from October of 2001

  • specifically to November 18 of last year.

  • During that time frame and the Global War on Terror,

  • there have been 5,440 active duty members killed in action.

  • So by my numbers, 115,000 approximate suicides,

  • 5,440 killed in action.

  • What does that mean to me?

  • We have approximately 21 veterans ending their lives by their own hand

  • for every one that is killed by an enemy combatant.

  • It's a staggering, staggering number.

  • These national studies

  • that deal with mental health tell us

  • that if you have any type of genetic mental health issue within your family

  • that can be passed on,

  • or if something has happened to you in your childhood that was traumatic,

  • your ability to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD,

  • significantly decreases.

  • They also tell us

  • that if you want to have a full evaluation,

  • determine if somebody has PTSD,

  • you need to have a minimum of one hour interview

  • with a mental health expert

  • that's trained to detect what PTSD is

  • to determine if you suffer from it.

  • Now let me talk about what happens when you enter into the military.

  • When you join the armed forces,

  • you're going to go through a medical exam,

  • you're going to take a physical fitness test,

  • you're going to take a drug test,

  • you're going to take a vocational test

  • so they can figure out what you're good at

  • and hopefully place you in that type of job category.

  • But would you believe

  • that with approximately 115,000 suicides over the last 20 years,

  • and the data that we know from the national studies

  • on how to determine if somebody is going to be able to cope

  • with post-traumatic stress disorder,

  • we still don't have a standardized mental health evaluation

  • for our recruits entering into the service.

  • That's something I think that needs to change.

  • Number two,

  • when you leave the service --

  • When I left the service in 2003,

  • I had to attend some mandatory classes,

  • about two days' worth of classes,

  • and then I was on my way.

  • Today, it's a little different.

  • Today you'll actually get a call

  • if you're on what we call terminal leave

  • or paid time off that you're trying to use up

  • before you actually are fully discharged.

  • I talked to one veteran who got a call.

  • He was on his way home from work,

  • and the only thing he could think of

  • was, "How quick can I get off this?"

  • And I think the call lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

  • But yet the national studies tell us

  • it needs to be an in-person, one-hour interview.

  • I think that's something that we can improve upon.

  • There's another thing that the Department of Veteran Affairs

  • talked about in the reports.

  • They said that our service members that are self-medicating

  • tend to be at a significantly higher risk of suicide.

  • So those veterans that are self-medicating with alcohol,

  • or drug abuse --

  • and in fact, the Department of Veteran Affairs has classified

  • opioid use disorder, OUD,

  • as one of the epidemics.

  • So as I talked to marines from my unit

  • and tried to learn more about it,

  • I started to find out some really, really alarming things.

  • I had a marine who came back from Iraq

  • and he went to the hospital for a "back pain"

  • and he was prescribed some opioids.

  • He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • He became addicted to these painkillers,

  • because not only did it mask the pain in his back,

  • but it helped him to cope

  • with some of the horrific things that he had to see, experience and do

  • over in the Middle East.

  • And he eventually overdosed.

  • Another challenge we have

  • is that when you're on active duty,

  • you are under the Department of Defense.

  • And so all of your doctors, all your health care

  • is in that category.

  • When you leave the service,

  • you are now part of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

  • So these active duty members

  • that seek help for their mental health issues

  • and are diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health issues,

  • when they leave the service,

  • there's no transition to a doctor

  • that's in the Department of Veteran Affairs

  • or perhaps out in the civilian world

  • because of privacy acts.

  • Now there's some good news in this.

  • Just recently, it was legislated

  • that a database will be built

  • that will house both Department of Defense health records

  • and Department of Veteran Affairs health records.

  • But I want to take that thought a step further.

  • My company was 204 marines and sailors strong.

  • As I looked at and I talked to my marines from my unit,

  • what we came up with is we are well in excess of a dozen

  • of our members that committed suicide.

  • When I talk to senior leadership in the battalion,

  • and battalion is about six to seven hundred marines,

  • they estimate that we're in the hundreds who have committed suicide.

  • So let's take this database that we're building,

  • and let's go a little bit further with it.

  • What if when a veteran passes away,

  • whether it's natural causes,

  • overdose or suicide,

  • we're able to feed that into the Veteran Affairs

  • who is then able to access Department of Defense records,

  • identify what type of units they were in,

  • what contingencies and operations did they participate in,

  • and let's build the data points to try to figure out

  • are there units that are more susceptible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder

  • so that we can get them the mental health

  • prior to going on deployment,

  • prior to being in theater.

  • If they're in theater,

  • get them the mental health while they're in theater,

  • and get them mental health counseling and help

  • before they even come home out of theater.

  • (Applause)

  • And by the way,

  • if we can build those sets of data points to be able to do that,

  • we don't just apply them to the military,

  • we can also use that for the general population.

  • If we put our minds together

  • and our resources together,

  • and we openly talk about this,

  • and try to find solutions

  • for this epidemic that's going on in America,

  • hopefully we can save a life.

  • Those are my thoughts, my ideas,

  • I hope that this talk is not the end of this discussion

  • but rather the beginning of it.

  • And I want to thank you for your time today.

  • (Applause)

So on May 6 of 2019,

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How the US can address the tragedy of veteran suicide | Charles P. Smith

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/11/04
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