March 30, 2008 – Randy Mills, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Mount Pleasant, occasionally gets newsletters reporting that another veteran committed suicide.
“It brings back memories of what we went through there,” Mills said. He was part of an elite Army force that worked in small teams of five or six men, traveling long distances to monitor enemy activity.
While Mills and his closest friends are doing well, he said, it’s hard to hear the bell toll for his fellow Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol members.
Veterans facing retirement are at an alarmingly high risk for depression and suicide. A national push by Veterans Affairs to ratchet up its mental health services has led to the recent hire of Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s first suicide prevention coordinator, neuropsychologist Mark De Santis.
“It’s not just a response to combat veterans,” De Santis said. “While we do see a lot of combat veterans, we have a large retirement community, which is at least of equal weight.”
The high rate of suicide among younger veterans received much attention in the fall when VA researcher Kara Zivin and colleagues released their findings.
Overall, the researchers found that from 1999 to 2004 the suicide rate for veterans was 88.3 per 100,000 person-years. A person-year is a statistical formula with the number of years observed multiplied by the number of people in a group.
Broken down by age group, the youngest veterans, ages 18 to 44 had the highest rate at 95 suicides per 100,000 person-years.
But not far behind them was the age group of 65 and older, at 90 suicides per 100,000 person-years, versus the middle group of 45- to 64-year-olds at 78 per 100,000.
It can be hard to tell a 65-year-old, who survived a jungle war 40 years ago, that it’s time to leave his identity behind yet again, De Santis said. Ask a man who he is, and he will tell you what he does for a living. “Here comes retirement, and they don’t have a sense of purpose,” he said.
Add to that losing family members and friends they’ve known for 30 or 40 years, and the problem compounds. “White males above 70 have a two times greater risk of any population to commit suicide,” he said.
Dick Walsh, 70, is a Vietnam naval veteran and former state commander of the American Legion. “We’ve been intervening and trying to help out people who may be prone to suicide and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” he said. He knows of one veteran who committed suicide.
The demographic of the American Legion is age 59, so Walsh hopes to reach baby boomers through education and outreach.
About 13 percent of all Americans have suicidal thoughts, De Santis said. That’s 400,000 out of 3 million people. Of that number, nearly 4 percent have actually created a suicide plan, he said.
As the VA’s suicide prevention coordinator, De Santis tracks high-risk patients, or those who have attempted suicide or told someone they are planning to. “We extend everything we have,” he said. “Not everybody is going to get better at the same rate.”
After Mills returned to Charleston from Vietnam, he bought Gene’s Haufbrau, a tavern in West Ashley, which he owned for 30 years. Now retired, Mills receives full disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.
He enjoys keeping up with his war buddies and is planning a reunion in October for E Company Long Range Patrol 20th Infantry. He says he is satisfied with his life, but sometimes wrestles with the randomness of fate, why he lived and others didn’t.