Maine has among the nation’s highest concentrations of veterans in the population at the same time the U.S. is experiencing a dangerously high level of veteran suicides and the grinding pandemic is increasing isolation and stressors.  The combination of factors means that all Mainers should be concerned about the well-being of the state’s military veterans in this troubling time.

Army veteran David Dickerson of Oklahoma City, Okla., joins veterans placing flags representing veteran and service members who died by suicide, on the National Mall in Washington on March 27, 2014. More U.S. vets have died by suicide in the last 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam. Charles Dharapak/Associated Press, File

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, released earlier this month, show an uptick in veteran suicides. In a sobering metric, more U.S. vets have died by suicide in the last 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam.

“Suicide among veterans remain disproportionately high, despite continued boosts to VA funding and efforts by Congress and the White House to curb the crisis,” Stars and Stripes reports.

For Maine, the most recent data from the VA show the suicide rate among vets in the state at 42.1 per 100,000, as compared with the national suicide rate for vets at 31 per 100,000. As another key point of comparison, Maine’s suicide rate for vets far surpasses the national suicide rate for all Americans, including vets and non-vets, at 18.1 per 100,000.

The VA and some states have focused in recent years on building out programs that seek to curtail veteran suicides by spotting warning signs in individuals. But the concern is that these programs, while essential, are missing the mark. Far more emphasis must be placed on reaching those vets in Maine and across the country who don’t raise their hands, who are suffering in silence, whose physical or psychological injuries have left them perilously disconnected from others.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., puts his finger on exactly the problem. “What we found is that two-thirds of these veterans who take their own lives have had no contact with the VA,” Warner said.

Connecting with 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 live in Maine and are 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.

Time is of the essence to make these connections. Invisible wounds linked to an underlying and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can mirror many mental health conditions. At the same time, vets can be burdened with moral injury from their experiences. The traumas can affect 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.

Warrior Call is a movement that every state in the nation should embrace, but especially Maine with its high concentration of veterans, and especially now – as the pandemic further isolates veterans who already might be spiraling downward.

“At this time of additional stress, we want to make certain that 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.”

Making connections is the most basic of human needs. For those who are suffering, the world becomes a little more hopeful when a battle buddy calls.


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