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Vets group calls for better suicide prevention services

Mar. 24, 2014 - 05:10PM   |  
Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith said that when he sought help from the Army for possible PTSD, he was given a general discharge rather than treatment.
Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith said that when he sought help from the Army for possible PTSD, he was given a general discharge rather than treatment. (Courtesy of Kristofer Goldsmith)
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When Kristofer Goldsmith tried to kill himself six years ago, the Army responded by kicking him out of the military for misconduct.

Goldsmith is on Capitol Hill this week trying to make sure other troops’ cries for help aren’t similarly ignored.

“People know the statistics about military and veterans suicide,” the 28-year-old Iraq War veteran said. “But if I can put a face and a name to what has been going on, maybe it’ll make a difference.”

Goldsmith is one of 31 veterans in Washington, D.C., this week as part of the annual lobbying event by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. This year’s effort will focus on the estimated 22 veterans suicides that occur each day, a problem the group has labeled both disheartening and preventable.

IAVA leaders are pushing for a new executive order that would create a single government position to lead suicide prevention efforts and launch national research into the problem.

But Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the group, said much of the work this week will be pushing Congress to clean up existing mental health programs and resources.

“There is already a lot of effort out there, but we have no idea if it’s having much of an impact,” Tarantino said. “There are hundreds of Defense Department programs to prevent suicide, but we don’t have performance metrics on most of them. We need a better evaluation of what’s working and what isn’t.”

IAVA members also will ask lawmakers to keep public attention focused on the issue. Goldsmith said that despite recent progress on mental health care in the military and the Veterans Affairs Department, a public stigma prevents many veterans from seeking help.

When he returned from a tour in Iraq in 2005, he said his post-traumatic stress disorder was “obvious to everyone except me.” He knew something was different about his outlook on life, but he blamed changes in the civilian world, not in himself.

After two years of struggling, he sought help from Army counselors but received only discouraging group therapy sessions. When he received orders for a second combat tour, it pushed him over the edge.

But Goldsmith said rather than getting him better treatment, his Army commanders gave him a general discharge. It wasn’t until he sought help from VA mental health specialists that he began to overcome his PTSD and depression.

“I’ve seen too many people not take this issue seriously enough,” he said, noting that his former squad leader took his own life last year. “I know services are available, but getting them can be so frustrating. It has taken me years to get my life back on track.”

Now an engineering student, Goldsmith said he thinks a broader national conversation on suicide and a better coordination of DoD/VA efforts can make a difference.

Tarantino said that despite failings in the systems, research has shown that troops and veterans who receive medical help are less likely to kill themselves. He hopes lawmakers will also amplify that message, getting more individuals to seek assistance while improving the resources.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255; press 1. Additional resources are available at http://veteranscrisisline.net/.

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