Your first love stays with you forever. Mine taught me lessons that it's taken nearly 40 years to understand.
I was 20 years old, in love with an Army Ranger who fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He sparkled with creativity. He came home -- and died by his own hand.
I was angry and unspeakably sad, unable to fathom how someone whose light shined so brightly could end his life. That was before we knew how preventable suicide is, and understood how important it is to talk about.
I didn't grow up wanting to be a Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. After I worked for decades as a nurse in VA medical centers in Wyoming and Montana, just as my grandmother had, VA introduced its national suicide prevention program. And I knew then that was what I wanted -- needed -- to do. It was my way of saying to my Ranger, now I know better. I know we can make a difference with our Veterans, one person at a time. I lost someone close to me; if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently. This is my gift back.
I lead the VA's dedicated Suicide Prevention Team in Montana, which has both the third-highest Veteran population per capita and third-highest suicide rate among the general population in the nation. Working in a remote region poses unique challenges: Many of our men and women who served are scattered across our frontier and too few receive VA services. I reach as many as I can.
My business card says Suicide Prevention Coordinator, but I consider myself a life preservationist. I connect people with the right benefits, a mental health counselor -- or I simply listen. I crisscross the state in my Ford Escape, Motown on the stereo, to teach Montanans to watch for warning signs of suicide in Veterans they care about.
When I began this job seven years ago, I received a few crisis calls a month from people in remote homesteads threatening to take their lives. Since then, the Veterans Crisis Line has changed things dramatically. Now, one or two Veterans are referred to me every day; awareness of available support is growing. And many of the Veterans I talk to are feeling overwhelmed, rather than trying to end their lives. I can connect people to care sooner, whether they're having relationship or money problems, or feeling anxious or angry. VA has built a stronger network of support. To a Veteran who feels hopeless, isolated on a Montana prairie, or to a spouse unsure where to turn, the Veterans Crisis Line can mean the difference between living and dying.
I love my Veterans; they're like family. I have found a community of people who I truly admire and who share their ups and downs. In this family, there is no typical "suicidal person." Some Veterans in crisis have jobs, some are unemployed; some are Reservists, some deployed to Iraq; some are 18, some are grandparents. Both older vets and those newly returned are at greater risk of suicide than the general population. Here in Montana, our resources are spread out. It's difficult, but also incredibly hopeful to see communities hungry to help.
A life transformed
When I began this work, a young Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran called me, sobbing as he drove. "I just can't do this anymore," he said. I stayed on the line with him, persuading him to drive to the VA hospital 90 minutes away. I met him at the entrance, helped admit him, made sure he was safe. Now he has finished school, remarried and started a family.
If I can make a difference in just one Veteran's life, then that's what I'm going to do. It is heartbreaking to me when a Veteran is lost. But that redoubles my energy to help people be aware of suicide risks. When we build that safety net together, we become powerful. And that's where you come in. September is Suicide Prevention Month; it's up to all of us to help. Listen to the Veterans in your life. Ask how they're doing. Understand suicide warning signs. Talk about it. Let them know about the Veterans Crisis Line. If you're concerned, call the toll-free, 24-hour confidential hotline. It matters.
Mental health care and suicide prevention awareness should be as clearly understood as the warning signs for a heart attack. Good health means body, mind and soul. If my Ranger were here, I would tell him: Preventing suicide is about taking care of all of us.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to email@example.com.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.