National Effort To Prevent Rural Veteran Suicide May Come To Kerrville, Texas
The Department of Veterans Affairs has started an outreach program to prevent suicide among rural veterans. According to recent data from the Veterans Health Administration, suicide rates were elevated among people living in rural areas, due to factors like isolation.
In Kerr County — home of about 50,000 people — the VA is recruiting local officials to develop an action plan.
Gregory Noller took a road trip with his son, a former combat engineer, just a few months before the unthinkable happened.
“Me and him, my dog and our motorcycles,” he said. “We went to Colorado, Arizona, Utah. We cooked steaks, we drank a couple of beers. We talked about the events that he was undergoing.”
No alarm bells went off, according to Noller. His son had a strong support system and a good job. But he did mention something that had happened during a deployment to Afghanistan.
“One of his roles was… looking for IEDs,” Noller explained. “He missed one. It exploded and it wounded the people in the truck behind him — but not seriously. It wasn't fatalities. But he mentioned it.”
When Noller’s son later died by suicide, the family was at a loss to explain it. Noller doesn’t think post-traumatic stress was necessarily a driver.
“So what was the root cause? What got him to the point where he would take his own life, instead of saying, ‘Hey Dad, I need some help?’” Noller asked.
Building A Network
Noller was just one of the people at a meeting held Wednesday in Kerrville, about 60 miles northwest of San Antonio. Medical providers, veterans’ advocates, law enforcement and local politicians were also present.
Together With Veterans, a community-based suicide prevention program funded by the VA’s Office of Rural Health, fielded questions from the group. The VA wants to recruit communities like Kerrville based on criteria like rurality and percentage of veterans within the population.
Together With Veterans is offering Kerrville $40,000 a year over three years to come up with — and execute — a community action plan. Eight other sites across the country, including Angelina County, Texas, have already created coalitions.
“Each community in this country has its own personality, if you will. A one-size-fits-all simply would not address this, the way it is addressed by something that's born within the community, nurtured within the community, and then executed within the community,” said Robert Dare, a consultant for Together With Veterans.
The program offers training and coaching for communities. Its goal is to promote weapons safety, reduce stigma, and bolster suicide prevention techniques in different settings. It encourages best practices consistent with the VA National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.
Together With Veterans actively recruits veterans to help in its mission, and aims to make them a sizeable part of each community-founded coalition.
“Veterans, traditionally, are much more comfortable talking to other veterans. They'll open up to veterans where they won't open up even to their own spouse or family members,” Dare added.
Mike Oates, an Army retiree living in Kerrville, was the local coordinator for Wednesday’s event. He said he had a first-hand view of active duty suicides during his time in service, but was surprised when the deaths seemed to continue even after his comrades had separated from the military.
In Kerr County, Oates said, veteran suicides often fall under the radar.
“I don't think we hear about most of the successful suicides, and there are privacy issues,” he said. “There are a lot of veterans who are isolated in the rural areas and don't have a support structure. That information doesn't bubble up until after the fact. This effort is to seek those veterans out and help prevent suicide before it takes place.”
Kerrville Mayor Bill Blackburn said he’s optimistic about the possibility of a coalition.
“When you look at the people who were here today and the different groups represented — veterans, law enforcement, city, county — they’re already doing a lot. This would be a great coalition. So I think I think it's going to go forward.”
The Big Picture
Besides social isolation, government data shows that gun ownership and access to health care may also be contributing factors to high rates of suicide among veterans in rural areas.
After accounting for age differences, the veteran suicide rate in Texas (31.3 per 100,000) was similar to the national veteran suicide rate (31 per 100,000) but significantly higher than the overall national suicide rate (17.5 per 100,000).
Nearly 500 Texas veterans died by suicide in 2017, the same year as Gregory Noller’s son. Nationally, some 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
After the meeting on Wednesday, Noller questioned the VA’s evidence about the causes of veteran suicide, but praised its efforts to combat the problem.
“So they're getting money to come out into these rural areas and set up these programs,” he said. “So they're doing something, and it's important to do something. Whether or not what you're doing is effective… This is the question.”
Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.