Guard feels its getting unwarranted attention on suicides

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Minnesota National Guard officials argued the guard has received unwarranted attention in terms of suicide rates among its troops — “undue notoriety” said Minnesota National Guard Adjutant Gen. Rick Nash, speaking at a State Capitol hearing Dec. 19.

Since 2007, 24 Minnesota National Guard troops have killed themselves.

According to the Army National Guard, the Minnesota suicide rate is the highest in the nation with Oregon and Indiana ranked second and third, with 16 and 15 suicides, respectively.

While Nash depicted soldier suicides as troubling and undermining unit cohesiveness — soldiers expect to lose friends to combat, not to suicide, he said — service in the guard is not a contributing factor to suicide, he said.

Of the 24 Minnesota National Guard suicides, two-thirds were never deployed, Nash said.

“That’s an important detail,” he said.

And of the 24, only two were in active duty status at the time of their suicides, Nash said.

Moreover, the suicide trends seen within the Minnesota National Guard are not unlike those seen in the state, he said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the state’s suicide rate has increased from 8.9 suicides per 100,000 population to 11 per 100,000 population in 2007.

In 2007, 571 Minnesotans killed themselves, nearly five times higher than the number killed in homicides.

Common stress factors shared by the 24 Minnesota National Guard suicides concerned relationships, legal, financial, employment and alcohol problems, Nash said.

Nash spoke of a focus in the guard on resiliency and suicide prevention.

Leaders now stress, he said, that, “It’s OK if you are not OK.”

Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, Nash said of the attitude of the guard.

The number of interventions on troops thinking about suicide or attempting it has increased from one in 2007 to 35 this year.

“We are good at getting people to the hospital,” said Minnesota National Guard Chaplain John Morris.

Indeed, Morris spoke of an “entire cultural change” taking place within the guard in confronting the problem of suicide.

Morris told of personally intervening in potential suicides after becoming alerted to them by soldiers’ comments on Facebook.

He spoke of late night interventions and being thanked by a soldier at risk of suicide for saving her life.

The Minnesota National Guard is good in its triage efforts, he said.

But providing long-term care for soldiers suffering from personal problems is something the guard is not well equipped to do, Morris said.

Nash downplayed the idea too readily accepted by American society, he believes, that soldiers end up somehow “damaged” from service.

“They are not victims,” he said.

Yet Nash said unemployment among National Guard members is significantly higher than the state average.

Not all those who testified before the joint House/Senate veterans affairs committees were satisfied with how the problem of suicide is being addressed by the guard.

Shelly Martin of Coon Rapids spoke disapprovingly of the guard’s handling of the death of Army Maj. Tad Hervas of Coon Rapids, assigned to the 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota National Guard, who died in 2009 while serving in Iraq.

Hervas, profiled in a recent Star Tribune story, died of a head wound in a non-combat-related incident.

Martin depicted the Minnesota National Guard as unresponsive in terms of providing details about the death.

Indeed, she spoke of Hervas’ father dying of a broken heart over the loss of his son.

House Veterans Service Committee Chairman Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, told Martin and others the committees would get to the bottom of their concerns.

Neighboring Wisconsin has seen 11 of its National Guard members kill themselves over the past five years. Wisconsin ranks in the top 15 states in terms of the number of soldier suicides.

The average age of a Minnesota National Guard suicide victims is 25 years old.

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