Speakers address high veterans’ suicide rate in Nevada
LVN Editor Emeritus
Who to contact in a crisis
Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide – and those who know a veteran in crisis – can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255.
Vietnam was not a conventional war like other generations faced during World War II or even Korea. Although Explosive Ordnance Disposal evolved during World War II, American troops quickly discovered Vietnam required EOD personnel who encountered a dangerous job in an unforgiving, hot, humid tropical environment during the 1960s.
Carson City’s Jim Bagwell served as part of a U.S. Air Force EOD team in the late 1960s when he deployed to Vietnam, and whether the teams consisted of two men or larger, they had to clean up ordnance that didn’t explode or destroy munitions from falling into the enemy’s hands.
Bagwell, who spent five years in the military, grew up in Hawthorne and graduated from Mineral County High School in the mid-1960s. He later served in law enforcement, beginning with the Nevada Highway Patrol in 1978 and finishing a 10-year career with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2002, retiring as a sergeant. He also served two terms as Humboldt County’s sheriff in the 1980s.
Along with two other speakers, Bagwell recently offered insight into reducing veteran suicides at the second annual “Reaching For Zero: A Veteran Appreciation and Veteran Suicide Prevention and Awareness Brunch” sponsored by the Nevada Rural Counties Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) at the Governor’s Mansion. The three-hour brunch focused on awareness of veteran issues and to provide veterans with suicide prevention resources, emergency transportation, wellness checks and a wide-ranging support system. RSVP provides services and outreach to most counties in Nevada except Clark.
Bagwell focused on his war experience first.
“War is not a lesson in civility,” he said. “You’re exposed to horrific acts and expected to do things that basic beliefs tell you not to do,” he said. “The greatest stress that a person can experience is life and death experiences in that environment and seeing the consequences.”
Being in EOD during a war tests the raw courage and nerves of a technician. One mistake in defusing a booby trap or other devices could’ve either maimed or killed Bagwell or his team. He said Charley, the nickname given to the Viet Cong, always kept EOD teams on edge. To illustrate his point, he said the enemy devised a device, for example, by placing explosives in a cardboard box. If a soldier stuck a knife in the box, Bagwell said the puncture shorted the wiring, and the box exploded. Compared to today’s military personnel in EOD, the teams serving during Vietnam had basic equipment.
Although the movie “The Hurt Locker” gives a viewer a look at modern EOD operations, Bagwell said his experience was less sophisticated.
“We did not have the exotic equipment the military has now,” he said. “Could you imagine 110-degree heat, 100 percent humidity wearing a blast suit.”
The goal of any war in any environment is to kill or maim the enemy. Bagwell was well aware of those consequences.
“I can’t explain the terror you feel,” he said of performing EOD duties. Bagwell paused, and then adding the suicide rate in EOD is one of the highest in the military.
How did Bagwell and others cope in a war environment? They used alcohol to dull their senses or leaned on each other for emotional support. Each day in country, though, thickened the stench of war with the EOD teams. They were tested both mentally and physically with each assignment. When helicopter pilots or a truck driver ferried killed soldiers or Marines to camp in body bags, Bagwell said the bags contained not only the body but also weapons and possibly other dangerous items. EOD personnel then searched each bag by removing and destroying items that could cause harm.
TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE
When Bagwell departed Vietnam in the early 1970s and returned to Reno, he stepped into a different world. He was late to register for the spring semester at the University of Nevada, Reno, and had difficulty finding a job, because, as he said, he was a Vietnam vet.
“I didn’t understand. I was gone one year, and I came home to a country I didn’t know,” he lamented.
His life hit a brick wall, causing Bagwell to think there was no way out: “Basically, I thought I had two choices: re-enlist or suicide.” For many young men returning from Vietnam, he said they operated at a high military level, and when they came home, they tried to blend back into the world they left. For many, they had to process their experiences alone … family and friends didn’t understand.
“Why can’t you make the transition to civilian life?” Bagwell said, referring to a common question many civilians asked.
Despite leaving Vietnam almost 48 years ago, Bagwell said he still has difficulty watching war movies. When he was Humboldt County sheriff, he remembers an incident at the theater when a scene from a war movie showed a soldier who took out his knife to open a cardboard box.
“I blurted out, ‘don’t open the F-in box,’” Bagwell recalled. “He opened up the box, and yep, he blew himself up.”
Over the years in law enforcement, Bagwell said other causes to make people desperate and upset with living are isolation, loneliness, failure to re-enter society, physical pain and disability. Sometimes, he said veterans find themselves in compromising situations or their spouse leaves them. Sometimes, the strain of coping finally overtakes the individual. He reflected on another story involving a veteran.
“One evening he came home from work. His wife was fixing dinner. He patted her on the butt, told her he loved her, kissed her on the cheek, walked into the bedroom and put a shotgun in his mouth.”
Attendees at the RSVP event gasped. Others looked down, shaking their heads. Bagwell said once people decide to die by suicide, they have a huge mental relief because of their decision. Bagwell then released suicide statistics involving veterans. On the average, about 20 veterans die from suicide daily, and six of each 20, for example, had been to a Veterans Affairs facility.
“Within a matter of a few days, they commit suicide,” Bagwell said.
Earlier this month, however, three veterans in two states — Georgia and Texas — took their lives within a span of five days at VA sites. Bagwell added the veteran/military suicide rate is about twice as high as for nonveterans. Then he took the government to task. In 2016, Bagwell said Congress allocated $6.2 million for suicide and prevention, but only $57,000 was spent.
In closing remarks, Bagwell said more must be done.
“How do you get a vet like myself to admit and seek treatment?” he quizzed. “Get him past that resistance.”
Bagwell continually faces his own feelings. When his wife Lori and him visited Washington, D.C., he couldn’t walk to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, yet a few years ago, the strength of comrades from Vietnam allowed him to gain additional closure. He was on an Honor Fight Nevada with fellow Vietnam vets including Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell. While in the nation’s capital, Bagwell visited the wall with other veterans from western Nevada.
“That was a healing situation,” said the former EOD sergeant.
Yet, for many veterans who have difficulty finding closure, they still are a ticking time bomb.
“Vets build a cocoon around themselves,” Bagwell pointed out. “A cocoon is like an oven. It heats up and heats up to the point of destruction.”
THE MAYOR’S CHALLENGE
“Nevada’s suicide rate among veterans is one of the highest in the nation,” said Kim Donohue, program manager of Veterans Suicide and Homelessness Prevention with the Nevada Department of Veteran Services in Reno.
Donohue is concerned with the high rate and vows to help reduce that number.
“I am really dedicated to making Nevada stand out,” she explained, “not for our high rate but for making a change in the state.”
Donohue pointed to a program she said should make a difference in helping veterans and their families and to reduce the number of deaths from suicide. She said the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) developed the Mayor’s Challenge program and announced in late 2017 the first seven cities, including Las Vegas, to participate in the first group. According to SAMHSA’s website, “SAMHSA and VA identified these cities based on veteran population data, suicide prevalence rates and capacity of the cities to lead the way in this first year of the Mayor’s Challenge. The Mayor’s Challenge provides a roadmap for how communities can contribute to the national effort of preventing Veteran suicide.”
Recently, the two agencies identified the next seven cities to participate in the program, one of which is Reno.
“We’re building off what we’re doing in Southern Nevada and doing it in the north,” Donohue said. “We have the mayor of Reno and Sparks on our team.”
Donohue also said her team is including local tribal leaders.
“Suicide is preventable with all of us working together collaboratively,” she added. “The Mayor’s Challenge allows us the platform for all veterans to pull together and worked on projects together.”
FOCUS ON THE RURALS
Donohue added Carson City’s service organizations have also reached out and are working with her and the NDVS to serve not only veterans but also their families. Another focus is on the rural communities, and Donohue is putting together a team to help in the outlying areas and to join the Mayor’s Team in suicide prevention.
“All of these cities came together to see what is working and not,” Donohue pointed out. “These are our successes. These are our pitfalls … what works and what hasn’t worked.”
Furthermore, Donohue said her office is focusing on caregivers when they work with a veteran or a family member and educates the caregiver on military culture. Additionally, Donohue said there’s a program to assist the veteran’s transition from military to civilian life.
“We’re looking at forming awareness training to help communities with military culture,” she said. “We’ll help with the transition, build a foundation and make it stronger.”
Donohue can see gradual success with the various programs. Since January 2018, Nevada’s ranking as one of the states with the most veterans suicide has dropped from fifth to seventh, and she’s actively doing crisis mapping by looking for hot spots in Nevada.
“A hot spot area is where suicide rates are highest,” she said.
Donohue challenged others to move outside their comfort zone to make a difference in reducing suicides.
“I want to make our state stand out to bring our suicide rate to zero,” she said.
Carson City native and Sheriff Kenny Furlong spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring from the military in 1998 and was elected as the area’s top law enforcement officer in 2002. He knows depression and uncertainty affect veterans and their families.
“There’s no peaceful moment when a military member is deployed around the world, and the family doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Furlong said.
But what happens when veterans return home and claim they have no purpose in life?
“Many people don’t have a reason to wake up in the morning,” Furlong said.
Some, he said, don’t find any time to see a doctor or they don’t have a ride; others stay home all day with no one to visit.
“Many vets are not going home because they don’t have a home to go to,” he said. “Many veterans are living in darkness, and they can’t see a simple hand or gesture before them.”
Furlong said once the darkness becomes ingrained in the people’s way of thinking, then nothing can bring them out of it. Instead of doing what they once enjoyed, Furlong said they now sit in their darkness.
“We see it all the time,” Furlong said.
While about 50 percent of the veterans in the Carson City area have jobs and families, Furlong said the other half don’t have much. Then the morose thoughts of harming themselves occur.
“Let’s go out and do something before it (suicide) happens,” Furlong said, “before the depression’s so channeled, before the darkness gets so overwhelming, before the depression gets so severe.”
Furlong said the area has a program called Vets for Vets, where fellow veterans visit a homebound vet. He said they’re not psychologists but friends visiting. He said others can restore the happiness in those individuals, both veterans and non-vets.
“We can listen to their stories, (and) we can get them to their appointments,” he said. “We can’t take away their pain, but we can acknowledge it.”
Bringing light to a person’s life can make a major difference, but Furlong warned again that when darkness falls, that’s when we, as a society, lose lives.