Flag.

Opinion: Helping Alaska’s veterans connect and heal

Americans should be concerned about the wellbeing of Alaska’s military veteran

  • By Frank Larkin
  • Thursday, November 12, 2020 1:28pm
  • Opinion

By Frank Larkin

Americans should be concerned about the wellbeing of Alaska’s military veterans. The state has the nation’s highest concentration of veterans at the same time as the U.S. is experiencing a dangerously high level of veteran suicides.

The statistics are deeply worrisome:

The number of veteran suicides nationally exceeded 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, reflecting a persistent level over the last several years and 6.1 percent greater than in 2005.

— The suicide rate nationally for veterans is at least 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex.

— Alaska already has one of the highest rates of suicide per capita in the country for all Alaskans, vets and non-vets, according to state data. Alaska’s rate was 24.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2018, while the national rate was 14 suicides per 100,000 people.

While suicide among veterans is a major concern generally, it is even more so with the increased isolation as a result of the pandemic.

“Many of our veterans are suffering from daunting, sometimes overwhelming mental health challenges, that have only been made worse by this pandemic,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a statement. They lack “access to modern, effective and compassionate mental health care and suicide prevention services.”

The trends are similarly disturbing among active duty military service members for whom the suicide rate continues to climb, according to the Pentagon’s latest figures. In 2019, the rate of suicide among active-duty troops was 25.9 per 100,000 troops – an increase year-over-year. The Army alone reports a 30% increase in deaths by suicide in 2020 with two months left in the year.

Many veterans suffer from “invisible wounds” whose symptoms can be confused with mental illness. A growing body of research is illuminating the presence of microscopic brain injury directly related to military blast wave exposure and concussive impact to the head. Invisible wounds linked to an underlying traumatic brain injury can mirror many mental health conditions. At the same time, vets can be burdened with moral injury from experiences that collide with their sense of right from wrong, fairness, justice and the value of human life. This invisible trauma can impact and erode a person’s sense of hope, leading them to disconnect from friends and family and cause some to see suicide as the only way to relieve their pain.

Reaching these people before they despair is paramount. That is why the Troops First Foundation and its partners in the military community are calling on veterans to share a sense of responsibility for those with whom they have served and to recognize the urgent need to connect.

Our ask is simple: If you are active duty or a veteran, reach out and connect with current and former battle buddies and let them know you care. In short, make a call, take a call and have an honest conversation. With research showing that active duty service members and vets in need of support often don’t seek help on their own, a call could save a life. The Foundation’s effort, known as “Warrior Call,” is seeking to have at least 50,000 current service members and vets make a phone call and connect with another by the end of the year.

It’s an effort that every state in the nation should embrace, but especially Alaska with such a high concentration of veterans.

“At this time of additional stress, we want to make certain that the nation’s warriors, whether veterans or active duty, connect and check in with one another,” said Leroy Petry, a 2011 recipient of the Medal of Honor and co-chair of Warrior Call. “All it takes is a simple call to make a huge, life-changing difference.”

• Frank Larkin is co-chair of the Warrior Call initiative, a former Navy SEAL, 40th US Senate Sergeant at Arms and father of a Navy SEAL son who died by suicide. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

More in Opinion

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malaspina heads up Lynn Canal towards Haines and Skagway from Juneau in 2008. (Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Rising freight costs continue to stifle Southeast economy

Adding trucking (via road) would place downward pressure on what many contend is a freight monopoly.

Web
Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

t
Opinion: Program gives me hope that cycles of family violence can be broken

The program is a holistic family-focused, culturally based counseling/treatment model…

Deven Mitchell greets his fellow members of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.’s Board of Trustees at the start of his interview Monday to be the APFC’s new executive director. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: It’s an honor to now lead Alaska’s largest renewable resource

This October, I was provided the opportunity to serve as the Executive… Continue reading

t
Opinion: New to Medicare? Please consider this

Please choose “original” Medicare and avoid the so-called “advantage” plans

The Alaska State Capitol awaits a legislators forming new majority coalitions and the return of Gov. Mike Dunleavy after the winners of the general election were announced Wednesday. The Senate will have a 17-member bipartisan ruling coalition, while the House arrangement remains uncertain due to at least one likely recount and questions about partisan alignments. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The rising purple tide in the state Senate

A purple tide threatens to inundate the uncompromising wing of the state Republican Party.

t
Opinion: Giving is for everyone – and the time to act is now

You don’t have to be rich, or prominent, or famous to care about your community…

A roll of “I Voted” stickers await voters on Election Day in Alaska. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of a state constitutional convention. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Election winners, losers and poor losers

Tshibaka and Palin misread Alaskans by thinking Trump’s endorsement all but guaranteed they’d win.

Most Read