September 28, 2012

Former Commander Motorcycling Across U.S. to Stop Soldier Suicide

An 18-year-old soldier attempted to slit her wrists while waiting in Germany to be deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2006.

"She was a stranger in a strange land," said the woman's platoon leader, Brian Kinsella.

It was a sobering memory that still sticks with Kinsella, who left the U.S. Army in 2010 and founded the grassroots organization Stop Soldier Suicide.

"She moved into a male dominated unit, trying to figure out what the hell she was doing to go to war," he said. "We as a command could have done more to make sure this person had better acclimated to our unit."

That soldier survived her suicide attempt, Kinsella said, but an increasing number have not.

The army reported 212 suspected suicides from January through August, meaning one soldier takes his or her own life nearly every day. Over the same time period, the Army lost 171 soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the Army Times.

Kinsella, now a 28-year-old New York City-based energy analyst, is making it his mission to combat the increasing suicide rate in the armed forces. Through his organization, he hopes to connect service members to mental health resources outside the military chain of command.

He left Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State today on a 5,000 mile "ride for life" that will take him to 12 military installations across the U.S., where he plans to meet with soldiers, veterans and military leadership to discuss suicide prevention and create partnerships with civilian resources within the community.

"I was in the military when they began realizing suicide was a problem," he said. "One thing I didn't see was the civilian outlet. If this is such a highly stigmatized problem, why aren't you educating soldiers about where they can go outside of the military?"

At the time of his death in 2005, Maj. Mike Ruocco, a marine attack helicopter pilot, was preparing for his second deployment to Iraq and secretly battling depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ruocco was living in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, Calif., when he called his wife Kim in Massachusetts for the last time.

"He was going to go on base and tell them he was not OK. That was the last phone call I had from him," Kim Ruocco said.

"He said people were going to think he was not going to want to go back to Iraq, feeling like he did not want to do his job. He was really suffering," she said.

Ruocco felt something was wrong when she hung up the phone. She rushed to the airport and by the time her red-eye flight landed in California, was informed her husband had died by suicide.

She now works as the national director of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors suicide postvention and education program, providing peer-based support for other families who have survived a military suicide.

"I've seen [soldiers who are] searching for a place to go that's private, a place to get help," she said. "That's difficult to find. We need more of it."

Pinpointing why a soldier or veteran died by suicide can be difficult, said Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has studied the issue.

"Deployment stress played a role in some individual suicides, [but] we also see suicides in troops that haven't deployed at all," he said. "All we have right now are lots of questions and not a lot of answers."

Carter said there is a growing role for the private sector and nonprofits, such as Stop Soldier Suicide, to play in the fight against suicide.

"It's a great thing to make people aware there are resources that can fill the gaps," he said. "[Especially] if they don't want to get help from their medical facility, but they'd be willing to go into the community."

Despite an increase of returning troops, Carter cautioned it would be "malpractice" to project where the suicide rate will be next year or five years down the line.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens," he said. "We can do a lot to shape those numbers today. The future isn't written yet."