When the Veterans Day parades are over, and people have put away their miniature American flags and their specially-bought camo clothing, and a veteran is in desperate need, can he count on his community to have his back?
On the front lines of the fight locally is the Armed Forces Mission, led by Army Chaplain Kenneth Koon. Their focus is clear and simple: Suicide prevention.
The numbers are rising, both in military and civilian life, and there’s no time to rest in the daily fight to stem the tide. A Department of Veterans Affairs report shows that an average of 20.6 veterans and active-duty military members succumb to suicide every day. Koon estimates he’s trained over 12,000 people around the country in suicide intervention, and that he’s personally done over 800 suicide interventions, including three in the last three days.
The fight against suicide is especially tough because it’s the wounds you can’t see that are the hardest to treat. Statistics show roughly 30 percent of soldiers deployed return home with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and every trauma is unique and every trigger is different, so there is no cookie-cutter approach to intervention.
While there are classic signs of someone struggling, in so many cases the person in need can keep those warning signs hidden deep below a sunny exterior. Studies show it is particularly a problem with youth suicides, where one in five who kill themselves never showed an outward sign of distress.
“Sometimes it’s a situation where nobody saw it coming. Everybody thought this guy has got it together, he’s happy, he makes everybody feel good, but he had this silent war going on in his mind that he couldn’t overcome,” he said. “The wounds are more devastating sometimes than losing a limb.”
People are getting a better grasp of what troops go through, but there are still large gaps in understanding. Koon prefers a tweak to the acronym itself.
“Personally I do not like the word ‘disorder’ because it’s not like a personality disorder. A personality disorder is a lifelong problem,” he said. “When we put the same idea to PTS, then that implies it’s lifelong, and there’s no cure, and that’s not true. A personality disorder is something in you, whereas PTS is because of something that happened outside of you.”
While the term PTSD does not date back to older wars, trauma has been around since the first battle. Koon recalled a conversation with someone who mistakenly thought PTSD was a new phenomenon.
“He said to me ‘Why are these young veterans today killing themselves? My father was in WWII and he was in Korea, and he didn’t kill himself, and his friends didn’t kill themselves, and they didn’t have PTSD,” he said.
Misconceptions can be dangerous when you think the problem doesn’t apply to you or your generation. While it hasn’t always gone by the current acronym, soldiers have always come home with trauma, even if under a different label like “shell shock” or “Vietnam Syndrome.”
“I stopped him and said listen, PTSD has been around forever, we just didn’t call it PTSD.”
It doesn’t specifically target lower-enlisted or non-commissioned officers, either. In fact, the average tenure of a military member that takes their life is 14 years.
As understanding grows, we can better reach out.
“In all honesty, I’ve never met anybody that wanted to die. Suicide is not the result of wanting to die, it’s the result of loss, and that loss overcomes the coping mechanisms, and they feel like that’s the only option,” he said. “I come back and say suicide is not really an option, it’s an option ender, and we’ve got to find a way to work through this loss that you’ve experienced.”
The key is showing the person in need there is hope. Do not stay silent.
“The other misconception is that if I ask someone if they’re suicidal, it’s going to put the thought in their head. That’s not true, that thought’s already there. I tell people all the time, it is just a thought, you don’t have to act on it,” he said. “We’re not going to take that thought away instantly, but we can reestablish some coping mechanisms and instill some hope.”
Koon says suicide intervention requires a day-to-day approach. Do not make promises you can’t guarantee will be kept. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver because you never know what might happen to you tomorrow.
“If I can keep you safe today and you can have a good night’s sleep tonight, then tomorrow you’ve got 24 hours worth of resilience built up,” he said. “You can tell them we’ve done it before, and we can do it again. You just have to take it day by day.”
Few people will see the horrors of live combat, but everyone can join in the battle against mental illness when members of their community return home from war.
When feelings of isolation leave someone feeling like there’s nothing left to live for, the community needs to rally around them, and Koon thinks Fayette has the makeup for it.
“Healing takes place in a community, and fortunately I think Fayette County is a very patriotic community, and we have a high regard for veterans,” he said. “We’re doing what we can, but we need to always be doing what we can.”
It’s dangerous to think our community is above the problems.
“There’s a lot of people hurting, but we maintain this facade, and we need to be real. We need to be willing to say I need help.”
While the main mission is assisting soldiers in need, Koon doesn’t turn his back on anyone struggling.
“Our mission is suicide intervention,” he said. “It used to be we were only focused on veterans, but I’m a soldier, so my creed says we serve the people of the United States of America, so that means everybody. We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks.”
The most important thing is simply being there. While the notion that suicide rates are higher during the holidays is not true, it is still a perfect time to reach out to someone in need.
“It’s a perfect time because families can get together,” he said. “It’s a good time to have heart-to-heart discussions and let ’em know you love ’em and you’re thankful for them. This is Thanksgiving. Let’s show our thanks for one another.”
Koon believes a gesture as simple as asking someone how they’re doing and if they’re struggling can mean the difference. It might feel uncomfortable asking the question, but it brings nowhere near the anguish of waiting until it’s too late.
“We have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone, and when we do, we can help people,” he said. “We’ve got to be willing to stand with them for a little bit in their discomfort without immediately trying to pull them over to the life side, because they’re staring at this billboard that says death, hopelessness, being alone, isolation. That’s where they’re at, so just be with them where they are for a few minutes and build a rapport. That in itself will help them understand ‘I’m not alone, somebody’s with me,’ and if we’re willing to ask that question, that lets them know somebody cares.”
If you or someone you know is in need, there are concrete ways to help. You can start by contacting the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.
“Georgia was the first state in the country to have a state-wide crisis line where we can have boots on the ground within 59 minutes on average,” Koon said.
The crisis line is run at no charge and is staffed with trained phone counselors to help 24-7, 365 days a year.
“The beauty of it is that 80 percent of the calls never go to 911, and often 911 rolls calls to GCAL,” he said. “The goal is to answer the phone and get them the help they need.”
Locally, Koon and the Armed Forces Mission offers a number of suicide intervention skills training workshops to give everyone the tools to listen and assist someone struggling. To register for a workshop, visit their website at www.armedforcesmission.org.
Koon has a clear mission, one he hopes someday the whole world can accomplish. It’s not easy, but it’s worth fighting for the people who have fought for us.
“I’m chasing a dream, and that dream is one day we have a boy ask his dad, ‘What was suicide?’” he said. “I can’t make that dream a reality by myself, it’s going to take the whole community working together to build a network of care so that we can raise the bar on the culture of health.”
Whether you know someone in need or you simply want to be there should someone in your community need you, please don’t wait until it’s too late, and if you are in need, there is always hope.