Arizona National Guard soldiers slipping through cracks as veteran suicide rates rise

PHOENIX - THE BATTLE AT HOME

Suicide is a growing problem military-wide. Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day, according to the most recent estimates by the Department of Veteran's Affairs. But, National Guard leaders in Arizona say flagging and treating the problems that can lead to suicide is uniquely difficult for Guard veterans. 

Access to mental health resources is improving within the Arizona National Guard, but the ABC15 Investigators found soldiers are still slipping through the cracks.

For one Arizona National Guard unit, the problem of veteran suicide has become a harsh reality.

Nearly 200 Arizona soldiers deployed  to Iraq with the 860th Military Police Company.  It was a long, tough deployment. Thirty-six members received Purple Hearts and two were killed in Iraq.

For the soldiers who returned from war in 2006, the battle continued. 

Since their return, the unit has lost twice as many soldiers to suicide.

Scott Belcher had only been home for a few days when he put a gun to his head.

Ted Duhaime, a husband and father with another baby on the way, shot himself to death in 2008.

Flagstaff police officer Rick Kellogg died in 2010, and Christopher Palmer took his own life after a police standoff in 2011.

Read each of the veteran's stories.

A GROWING PROBLEM

The Arizona National Guard says it simply does not have the resources to give every soldier the mental health help they need when they need it. 

"We don't have and cannot offer everything from the Arizona National Guard. I'll be straight up," said Lt. Col Cosme Lopez, the Director of the Guard's Total Force Team, which runs suicide prevention and resiliency programs for Guard soldiers who return from war in Arizona.

He blamed top-down funding issues from Washington.

"When there is no funding from the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, National Guard Bureau, down to us, the Arizona National Guard, we really can't do much about it," he told the ABC15 Investigators.

Despite the financial challenges, Lopez said suicide awareness recently became a top priority in the Arizona National Guard because of an increasing number of suicides within their ranks.

THE GUARD'S EFFORTS

Two years ago, the National Guard established a task force, called the Total Force Team, to improve members' resiliency during and after their service.   Lopez helped create new programs and specialized training classes to educate soldiers about resources available to them to fight rising suicide rates within the Guard.

Soldiers are now required to attend special suicide awareness classes before and after they deploy.  They must also participate in a re-integration program for three weekends after returning from combat.

WEEKEND WARRIOR STATUS HINDERS ACCESS

Arizona National Guard soldiers who return from combat must complete a computer survey to help evaluate their mental health condition, Lopez said.  "They have the opportunity…to actually ask for (mental health) help," while they are still on active duty, he said.

If they do, they could receive counseling.  "We have opportunities to keep them on active duty for the duration of their treatment," he said.

However, if a soldier doesn't recognize or admit to his or her own need for mental health assistance and request the help immediately, that soldier's active duty orders are usually cut.  The soldier returns to civilian life and only reports back two days each month.

"It's very difficult because now they're on their own," Lopez said. 

"They're civilians twenty-eight days out of the month," he said. "They're only capable of gathering those active duty resources for two days out of the month."

And, with only five counselors for more than 9,000 soldiers in the state, he admits, the Arizona National Guard cannot provide services for all of the soldiers who might need them.

For non-active duty soldiers, Lopez recommended they seek help from the Veteran's Administration.

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