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Discrimination Lawsuit Filed Against UC Davis Following Veteran Suicide

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By Debbie Gregory.

It was supposed to be a two-day retreat to Monterey, a chance for a small group of employees in UC Davis’ agriculture college to bond. Instead, it ended tragically for a decorated Air Force veteran.

Now a lawsuit filed on behalf of the widow and two children of Col. Christopher de los Santos alleges that the university’s actions against Santos, less than four months after he began working at the school, caused him to end his life.

Santos was the focus of an internal investigation into alleged inappropriate behavior during an alcohol-filled retreat with 16 of his co-workers. He supposedly stripped naked and invited subordinates to take a bath with him. The day after the investigation was launched, campus officials sent Santos an email placing him on leave, and ordered him to stay away from campus.

Santos took his own life a few hours after receiving that email.

According to the lawsuit, De Los Santos was subjected to exceptionally harsh punishment because he was a veteran, violating federal and state discrimination laws.

“They were concerned that he would show up with a gun and that he would have to be escorted off campus by security, and he said they made it clear that that was because he had a military background,” said Santos’ family attorney, Annabelle Roberts. “For them to have a knee-jerk reaction because in administrator in the Air Force might somehow be violent because he’s been in the military, I mean that’s blatant discrimination.”

Campus officials released a statement that read in part: “After the university received allegations of potential sexual harassment during an overnight staff retreat, he [Santos] was promptly placed on paid administrative leave so a thorough investigation could occur.”

The statement went on to say that the other employees who attended the retreat and also engaged in improper conduct received appropriate disciplinary action.

What do you think?

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

California Legislators Push Bill to Help Combat Veteran Suicide

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By Debbie Gregory.

A proposal for new state legislation in California that will help confront the issue of veteran suicides has been introduced by Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula and Assemblyman Jim Patterson.

AB 242 would require death certificates to reflect whether the deceased person was ever a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Currently, details such as marital status, birthplace and occupation are required on death certificates, but military service is not.

“Getting ahead of the suicide, getting help when it’s needed, not after it’s too late, and I think this is a good first step,” said Patterson.

The bill would also require the California Department of Health compile a report on veteran suicides, beginning in 2019.

“As a physician, I know accurate data will help us better understand the full scope of the problem of veteran suicides in California,” Arambula said. “Tracking this information will help determine whether or not existing suicide prevention efforts are having a positive effect, if more attention to this matter is needed in the future and where to allocate existing resources for mental health funding.”

“I have no question this information will be very helpful,” said Sen. Jim Nielsen, who voted for the bill in the Senate Veteran’s Affair Committee. “To our various veteran operations in the area, we can identify and allot them resources they desperately need.”

If passed into law, Arambula, an emergency room doctor, said California will join 21 other states in implementing such an effort to better calculate veteran suicide deaths.

The legislation is to be heard before the Senate Appropriations Committee at the end of this month after the legislators return from recess.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

D’Youville Veteran Student Michelle Greene Rides for a Cause

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You could call Technical Sergeant Michelle Greene a bit of an overachiever.

The  27-year-old has already completed nine years of military service, while taking on a full time course load to complete her undergraduate degree in Exercise and Sports Science at D’Youville College, a Veteran School Salute awardee and Yellow Ribbon Program Participant.

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A natural at athletics, Greene took up road biking four years ago, and it quickly became her favorite hobby. So when you love to ride, and you have a generous spirit, what better to do then combine the two and ride for a cause?

“Simply put, I want to do this ride for those who can’t,” said Greene.

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Greene connected with Mission 22, a non-profit organization that raises awareness and enlists support to end veteran suicide in America. She has volunteered to complete a 22 day bike trek traveling from Buffalo, NY to Keesler AFB, Mississippi during the month of September, 2017.

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“If by me riding 1250 miles on my bike can help even one soul overcome the mental battle or depression and thoughts of suicide I would do it 100 times over,” Greene said.

On top of her studies and military service, Greene also volunteers at a local gym as a trainer, specializing in teen and young adult athletic development.

“I myself have known many people who have struggled with PTSD, depression, and a never ending mental battle with the outcome often times leading to suicide,” Greene shared. “I want people, vets and civilians alike, to become aware of the resources out there to help. I want them to know they are not alone in this mentally crippling battle and that there is help, there is a light, and there is a chance to become healed from the stressors military life puts on not only the member, but their family, friends, and cohorts.”

Greene’s long term plan is to earn her Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

It’s time to replace the words, “Thank you for your service” with an action that demonstrates the sentiment. If you would like to support Michelle Greene’s great cause, you can do so by either purchasing a shirt or through a direct donation.

Study Reveals Veteran Suicide Risk Highest in the First Year Home

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By Debbie Gregory.

A new study may open doors to more effective treatment for veterans as they move from active-duty to life after the military, especially in light of the fact that Veterans may be more likely to commit suicide during the first year after they leave the military than after more time passes.

A new study at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, lead by study author Yu-Chu Shen, revealed that compared to those on active duty in the military, veterans out of the service for up to three months were 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide. Veterans who had left the service from three to 12 months earlier had almost triple the suicide odds of current members of the military.

The study didn’t examine why the suicide risk was lower during deployment than afterwards. But it’s possible service members benefited from the positive psychological impact of belonging to a group with a shared mission during deployment, Shen said, then had more time to contemplate any negative feelings about their experiences when they were no longer on the mission.

“Family members and community can be proactive to reach out to veterans if they recently experienced stressful events – not just limited to the stressful events we can capture in the data such as divorce or separation from the military,” said Shen.

Overall, there were 4,492 suicides in the study population.

In the Lancet Psychiatry, researchers reported that the strongest predictors of suicide were current or past diagnoses of self-inflicted injuries, major depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or other mental health conditions.

Compared with service members who were never deployed, those who were currently deployed had a 50 percent lower risk of suicide, the study found.

However, in the first quarter following deployment, service members had a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than their peers who didn’t experience deployment.

The study doctors and researchers hope to lower the biggest barrier to veterans receiving the care they need when they get home, and that’s the stigma surrounding asking for help in the first place.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Veteran’s Suicide Tragedy Compounded by Financial Consequences

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By Debbie Gregory.

On July 5th, Stephen Coning, a 26-year- old veteran who had served three deployments as a Marine Infantryman, tragically took his own life. Coning was part of the infamous 2/7 Marines, a unit that has been plagued by a suicide rate sixteen times that of the national average.

Two days later, the Department of Veterans Affairs released data showing that the rate of suicide for those who served is much higher than for civilians. But despite that connection, the VA does not presume all suicides to be “service connected.”

After Coning transitioned out of the military in 2013, he went to school on the GI Bill and got a job as a veterinary tech.

Although Coning was a great father, he had trouble sleeping, was short-tempered, and didn’t do well in crowds. He always wanted his back to a wall. His wife, Sky, believed her husband had post-traumatic stress disorder, but he was never tested for it by the VA.

“The VA recommended that he go through PTSD testing but he did not,” she says. And not getting tested had consequences that her husband surely never intended, as there is no medical record that Coning was depressed or had PTSD.

With nothing formal to show a strong connection between his time in Afghanistan and his suicide, the VA can’t rule his death service connected.

If a veteran has been rated as 100 percent disabled, or has a VA diagnosis linked to suicide, then the VA can pay several thousand dollars for a funeral and grant a surviving spouse a monthly support payment. But without proof a death is connected to military service, the VA pays just a few hundred dollars for burial and can help find a plot in a cemetery.

Unofficial help has come from the local Indiana state VA, which used a discretionary fund and paid thousands of dollars for the funeral. Additionally, the Marine Corps League covered Sky’s mortgage for two months, and many strangers have contributed to the family’s GoFundMe page.

Also, the anti-suicide group Spartan Weekend donated $4,000 for Coning’s burial, and has started a memorial fund in his name. They are also petitioning to increase the amount the VA pays for burials, even if they’re not service connected.

Sky will now need to collect testimony from friends and family that her husband’s 30% VA disability rating for nerve damage and hearing loss was not the only disability her husband had. Only then might the VA grant service connection and pay benefits and burial.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Veteran Suicide Tragedy in VA Hospital Parking Lot

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By Debbie Gregory.

A 76-year-old former Navy gunner killed himself outside a Long Island Veteran Affairs facility after allegedly being denied treatment for mental health issues. The tragedy unfolded at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Peter Kaisen, a retired police officer from Islip, New York, shot himself in the parking lot outside Building 92, the facility’s nursing home. He had served on Navy supply ship USS Denebola in the late ’50s through the early ’60s.

Kaisen’s wife, Joan, said that her husband had been suffering from back pain so severe that he was unable to sit for more than a few minutes. Doctors at Northport told her husband earlier this year there was nothing more they could do to ease his suffering.

Longtime friend and fellow veteran, Tom Farley, said, “We all think there is probably some depression. Maybe he wanted meds. Maybe he wanted to sit and talk. I don’t know. None of the family knows.”

Hospital spokesman, Christopher Todd Goodman, said the hospital had no evidence that Kaisen sought treatment at the emergency room, entered any hospital buildings or had any interactions with staff or patients on the day he died. But he added, “The employees here at Northport feel this loss deeply and extend their thoughts and prayers to all those impacted by this tragedy.”

U.S. Reps. Peter King and Steve Israel have requested an FBI investigation into the death.

There are a number of resources available to veterans who are struggling with mental health issues. We hope anyone in a similar situation will reach out for help to resources such as Give an Hour and the Veteran Crisis Line.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Veteran Suicide: It’s Time for Real Answers

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By Kim Forsythe, MSW Candidate 2017

USC School of Social Work

What is really going on with the veteran suicide rate? That is the problem right there… no one really knows.

In 2007 the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) proclaimed their primary focus as reducing the number of veteran suicides. The VA announced this focus after eight years of the veteran suicide rate lingering around 16-20 a day. In 2012 the VA released a pitiful excuse of a demographic statistical report of information concerning veteran suicide with only partial information for approximately 20 states and no U.S. territories. The 2012 VA report, although not having complete data, still disclosed that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide. This grotesque figure has reverberated through the nation over the last four years and has been a hard pill to swallow. 22 veterans a day adds up to more veterans dying by suicide annually than the total number of service members killed in action since the inception of the Global War on Terrorism. We owe these brave men and women “who at one point wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life” more.

In July 2016, the VA released an updated statistical report of demographics from veteran suicides from 2001 to 2014. This report examined over 50 million veteran records from all 50 states and four U.S. territories. The report revealed in 2014 an average of 20 veterans die by suicide daily.  Seven years of the VA’s primary focus being to reduce the number of veteran suicides only reduced the daily average by two veterans. To make matters worse, in this time the VA has repeatedly stated they have been aggressively improving and expanding their mental health services to serve all veterans, even those not enrolled in or eligible for VA health care, to prevent suicide.

The only way to defeat an enemy is to understand the enemy. Suicide is the enemy we are facing. We need to understand more than just demographic information about these veterans as the demographics gives us no tangible answers. In-depth research is required to combat this epidemic. H.R. 4640, The Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, is a beginning to the research that is necessary to beat this enemy. This legislation directs the Secretary of the Department of the Veteran Affairs to conduct a review of veteran deaths by suicide in the preceding five years before enactment. The bill’s main effort is to find a possible link between psychotropic medication and suicide. However, it also searches for common traumas documented, i.e., combat, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, and posttraumatic stress disorders, as well as any other patterns visible at individual Veteran Health Administration facilities.

While I do not doubt that expansions and improvements were necessary at Veteran Health Administration facilities, it has not made a dent in solving the problem. Now is the time to take another approach and not just look at demographic information. It is time to determine a why. Veterans have proudly and bravely served this nation, protecting the people’s rights and freedom. It is a shame that these battle-tested men and women go overseas to fight this nation’s battles, come home, separate from the military and then lose the fight to suicide. Now it is the nation’s turn to support our veterans. Let’s work to find the “why.” The Veteran Suicide Prevention Act should only be the beginning of the research. Continuing to investigate possible reasons why a veteran commits suicide is imperative. Finding the why to the answer may be the key to unlocking this mystery.

 

Spartan Pledge: A Promise to Seek Help Before Suicide

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By Debbie Gregory.

It’s a staggering statistic that we’re all becoming aware of: an average of 22 veterans take their own lives each day. While some people debate that number from the Department of Veterans Affairs, any number of lives lost to suicide is unacceptable.

Recently, a coalition of nonprofits led a “Spartan Weekend” for sick and injured veterans, extracting a promise that if they were thinking about suicide, they would first reach out to someone for help.

The promise was made with their hands on a sword hammer-forged of steel salvaged from the remains of the World Trade Center. The symbolism of the sword is important because the 9/11 attacks motivated a lot of people to join the military.

The Spartan Pledge is a commitment among warfighters to stand with their fellow soldiers in times of despair. The pledge has proven to be an effective deterrent to a spiral of hopelessness and offers a mission of brotherhood and a promise for tomorrow

Steve Danyluk, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and founder of the Independence Fund, helped organize the event for the Spartan Alliance and Disabled American Veterans.

“You don’t have to be suicidal to take the pledge,” he said. “It’s finding a mission: Help your buddy. It’s reconnecting, reestablishing those relationships that seem to vanish once you leave the military.”

Father Matt Pawlikowski, an Army chaplain from West Point, officiated a Mother’s Day service honoring Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers who have sons or daughters who are actively serving or have lost their lives in service. The ceremony closed with dozens of veterans taking an oath against suicide, known as the Spartan Pledge, a promise to reach out to their “Battle Buddy” before doing harm to themselves or others.

The pledge reads: “I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Social Media Effort #22Kill Raises Veteran Suicide Awareness

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By Debbie Gregory.

#22KILL is part of a social media campaign, launched by non-profit 22KILL, to bring attention to veteran suicides.

The #22 KILL pushup challenge, much like the ALS bucket challenge before it, started slowly. But in recent weeks, after several other veterans groups started promoting it, the challenge of doing 22 pushups for 22 days has exploded on the internet.

Marine veteran Jimmy Mac, the program manager for 22Kill, said, “We’d been using the hashtag since 2013 to help raise awareness, but we’re not even sure who actually started the pushup challenge. All we know is that it was sometime late last year.” Mac added, “I wish we knew who that first person was because I’d like to buy them dinner and give them a big hug.”

The goal is to reach 22 million pushups. The charity is also organizing a Battle Buddies program.

Mac has a unique perspective, having attempted suicide in 2002 after a sudden onset of epilepsy forced him out of the Marine Corps.

“I should have bled out,” he says. “I’m not super religious, but I felt like there was some higher purpose going on,” he says. “Life is worth living. We just have to get the word out.”

In an odd twist of fate, Mac’s wound required 22 stitches.

One of the biggest challenges veterans face is finding a sense of purpose after service. #22KILL directly supports veteran empowerment programs that help veterans maximize their talents and understand their value outside of the military. #22KILL also continually provides support for other veteran organizations, treatment centers, and community events and projects.

A 2012 study suggested that an average of 22 veterans kill themselves every day. While some argue that it’s lower, and others argue it’s actually much higher, the one thing that everyone can agree upon is that any number is too high.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Plagued by Suicide: Military Connection

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By Debbie Gregory.

The deaths started a few months after the Marines returned from the war in Afghanistan.

In 2008, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment deployed to Helmand Province. The battalion regularly ran low on water and ammunition, all the while under fire, almost daily. During eight months of combat, the unit killed hundreds of enemy fighters and suffered more casualties than any other Marine battalion.

In the post-deployment years that have followed, the unit has been plagued by suicides. Out of the 1,200 Marines who deployed together, at least 13 have committed suicide. Veterans of the unit, tightly connected through social media, would sometimes learn of the deaths nearly as soon as they happened.

The surviving veterans of the battalion have their own survival strategy; they depend on one another. Using free software and social media, they have created a quick-response system that allows them to track, monitor and intervene with some of their most troubled comrades.

Their system has made a few saves, but there are still failures.

The Marines of the 2/7, calling themselves “the Forgotten Battalion,” were spread out in sandbag outposts, hours from reinforcements, and often outnumbered. There was no dedicated air support, few mine-sweeping trucks.

They see a tie between combat and their suicide problem. Not only were all of the men who committed suicide young infantrymen those who had a hard time with the experience of killing and loss, but also had experienced at least one devastatingly traumatic moment.

The one death that really shook the battalion was that of Clay Hunt.

Cpl. Clay Hunt had been a sniper in the battalion. After he got out of the Marine Corps in 2009, he sought treatment from Veterans Affairs for depression and PTSD.

He began speaking openly about his problems and lobbying for better care for veterans. In 2010, he was featured in a public service message urging veterans to seek support from their comrades.

Hunt was desperately trying to get care at the V.A.

According to his mother, Susan Selke, Hunt encountered long delays and inconsistent treatment. In March, 2011, the 28 year old veteran shot and killed himself.

Following years of lobbying by his family and veterans’ groups, Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which provides additional suicide prevention resources for Veterans Affairs.

“When he died, all the guys, we couldn’t understand it,” said Danny Kwan of San Gabriel, CA, who served two tours with Hunt. “He had done exactly what he had been fighting against.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.