*Note: all names and identifiers have been changed, but this story is true.
His name was Michael. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shooter at Ft. Hood created mayhem, horror, and fear. His friends knew that the incident, deemed “workplace violence” was never far from his mind, but they thought he was okay. He was not. He committed suicide this month. This did not make the newspapers except in a small obituary, but it sent a resounding echo of despair to his circle of friends.
One friend of his, Jim, reacted very strongly to the news of the suicide. He became very angry. He became physically violent toward his wife. He vehemently threatened systematic destruction of all of his VA doctors (while in the halls of his local VA), and he expressed suicidal intentions. In each instance, his local VA suicide prevention coordinator was unable to provide help because Jim was not “actively suicidal”. The Caregiver spoke twice with the suicide prevention psychologist who said he could not do anything without an in-the-moment attempt. When saying it makes no sense not to throw a float to a drowning man, his wife said this, “it seems that until you are underwater, going down for the last time, that no one can actually do anything”.
One week later, after two visits to the local ER, (while his wife made careful safety contingency plans for herself), the situation worsened. Jim took a household knife into the bathroom with him and attempted suicide. (All firearms had long been removed from the household). When his wife broke into the bathroom, he threatened her with the knife and said he would first kill her, then himself. Through a near-miracle, she was able to get him to the local ER and began anew to get him VA psychiatric care. Many calls (some with outside assistance and advocacy) were made to the VA Crisis Line. Crisis Line recommendations to obtain local VA help went to unanswered voicemail...
With great compassion but also frustration, it seemed that most everyone’s hands were tied in some way or another, and the hours crept by. Finally the VA said it would admit Jim, but his wife would have to drive him nearly two hours to the facility – which under the circumstances was potentially too dangerous. Eventually into the wee hours, the private hospital moved him to a nearby psychiatric facility since no safe transport could be arranged to the VA. He remains there today, awaiting a private PTSD program.
There are gaps in any system. However, the current issue is the lack of follow-up by the local VA including his case manager, the suicide prevention coordinator, and the social work office. The Caregiver is exhausted, emotionally spent, and has no Caregiver Support Coordinator despite being in the National Caregiver Program. They have communicated their situation to leadership at VA for two years. These at-risk veterans and their families need consistent follow-up after a suicide attempt, and the care gaps back-filled. There are policies in place to aid in care and recovery. But – it doesn’t always happen as written.
Please be aware of your fellow veterans and families. Be aware that the suicide of a friend may create abrupt behavioral changes in your veteran, and in the worst case, lead to another suicide. Know that long-term frustrations can suddenly spill over and create volatile situations. And, always have the number of the Crisis Line, an advocate, and a personal support person if this happens to you. Friends and social media can spread word of suicide in seconds, and information may be wrong, yet the actions some take can be irreversible.
When in doubt, please reach out! And, as caregivers, remember this: the life you save may be your own.
Blessings and care,
Linda Kreter & the VeteranCaregiver Team