When the struggle doesn’t end on the battlefield

Suicide prevention coordinator addresses a different way American soldiers are being lost
Ozaukee Press staff

Military casualties don’t only occur on a traditional battlefield, Graham Knowlton, told a large audience at Belgium’s Memorial Day ceremony on Monday.

As the lead suicide prevention coordinator at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, he sees it all too often.

“Memorial Day is often thought of as a day to remember those who have died in a battle in a faraway land. Lives lost at the hand of a foreign enemy protecting our country,” he said.

“Although this description is true for countless soldiers, it does not account for everyone who has sacrificed for our nation and ultimately lost their lives. For many veterans, whether or not they experienced combat overseas, the battle continues after the discharging and returning home.”

Integrating back into society can feel more foreign to discharged soldiers than traveling with their military units.

“Now it is a different type of battle for which veterans receive little training compared to how they are trained for combat,” Knowlton said.

There has been a 30% increase in suicides across the country during the past 20 years. In 2020, nearly 46,000 people took their lives — one nearly every 11 minutes. Half of American citizens are expected to be impacted by suicide.

The numbers are much higher for veterans. They make up 9% of the U.S. population but account for 18% of the suicides — 1.5 times higher than the rate of civilians, Knowlton said.

The most dangerous time for service members, he said, is the first three years after soldiers are separated from the military.

It doesn’t matter if they experienced combat overseas, Knowlton said.

One key difference is that veterans are more likely than civilians to handle firearms. While 50% of suicides are gun related, the number is 70% among veterans. Two-thirds of gun-related deaths are by suicide.

That’s why the VA is partnering with gun shops across the state to set up storage spaces where veterans can keep their guns for a certain amount of time if they are in crisis or feel a crisis approaching. So far, Knowles said, 28 shops in the state have joined the effort.

“Suicide prevention is the department of veteran affairs top medical priority,” Knowlton said.

A suicide prevention coordinator and team have been in place for more than a decade, and training for staff and community members is ongoing.

Outreach, Knowlton said, is vital in preventing suicide.

Walk-in mental health clinics are available, as well as video and phone appointments through the VA to make access to help easier. Apps are offered on smart phones app stores.

The veterans crisis line, staffed by licensed mental health commissioners, has taken more than 6 million calls since its inception and received 250,000 texts, Knowlton said.

The National Suicide Prevention Line is 800-273-8255k. Knowlton said to then press 1.

The website www.veteranscrisisline.net offers chat rooms for support, and new prevention strategies are always being sought, Knowlton said.

“We know there’s no single cause of suicide and no single organization that can end suicide on its own,” he said.

Since about 70% of veterans do not receive care through the VA, it has formed relationships with community hospitals, faith-based organizations, universities, nonprofit corporations and small businesses to try to connect with as many people as possible.

“No matter how much outreach we do we will not be able to directly reach every veteran. Because of that, we are trying to change the culture around suicide and mental health and teach Americans that suicide is preventable,” Knowlton said.

“We all have a role to play in the wellbeing of others. Specialized training is not needed to reach out to those who may be struggling. Asking someone if they’re having thoughts of suicide does not make it more likely for someone to commit suicide.”

For those who have lost someone to suicide, Knowlton said, “you did the best you could at the time with the information you had. Our goal is to help increase your knowledge base so you can feel better equipped in the future.”

Participating in online suicide prevention training courses provide “skills and confidence” to help those who need help.

Knowlton thanked the Melvin Wester American Legion Post 412 for its donations to the suicide prevention program.

“No matter the size of the act, every action taken furthers the cause,” he said.

Knowlton has dedicated his career to that cause.

“On Memorial Day, I think of those we have lost and I try to honor them by working hard for those who are still with us,” he said.

For more information, visit betherewis.com and bethereforveterans.com.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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