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Report: Suicide a danger for Texas Guard troops

Mar. 10, 2013 - 09:19AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 10, 2013 - 09:19AM  |  
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AUSTIN, Texas Records show that since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, about twice as many Texas Army National Guard soldiers have died of suicide as in combat, according to a newspaper investigation.">The Austin American-Statesman reported Sunday that the Texas Army National Guard now counts 30 suicides since 2001, with most occurring in the last five years.

Since 2008, Texas has ranked second among states in Army National Guard suicides, trailing only Minnesota, which has 25 suicides over the last five years, according to a National Guard report obtained by the newspaper. Texas, which has the nation's largest Army National Guard force with about 20,000 soldiers, has had 22 suicides over that time.

The cause-of-death data, obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request, includes soldiers who didn't deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who did.

Officials didn't provide an age or gender breakdown for the deceased National Guard soldiers, making it difficult to directly compare their death rates with the overall population.

In recent years, National Guard suicides have helped drive overall Army suicides to record levels. In 2010, the overall National Guard suicide rate eclipsed that of active-duty soldiers and the civilian population; last year, about 1 in 3 Army suicides was of a National Guard soldier. Officials say about half of National Guard suicide victims nationally had never deployed, a trend that appears to hold in Texas.

Paula Brown-Nichols said she began seeing changes in her son, Spc. Cory Brown, when he came back for a mid-tour leave in the spring of 2009 and had a panic attack while they watched a musical.

Things got worse when he permanently returned from Iraq with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Brown had become angry and aggressive, his mother said.

Brown began to abuse his prescription drugs as well as illegal substances in an effort, his mother says, to self-medicate his pain. Brown-Nichols said she tried desperately to get him into a residential PTSD and substance abuse treatment program through Veterans Affairs, but no beds were available. Instead, he saw a VA counselor once a month, receiving more prescriptions.

Brown-Nichols said she tried to enlist the help of his National Guard supervisors and told them that her son was suicidal but said her pleas were not answered.

"He was just dropped through the cracks, that's all there is to it," she said.

In September 2011, Brown killed himself with a gunshot to the head. It happened shortly after an argument with his new wife, who was then seven months pregnant, and about a week after his mother says his medication through the VA was changed. His son, Elijah, was born two months later.

A National Guard investigation into Brown's suicide concluded that his command "acted properly in its dealings with SPC Brown" but suggested there were structural problems.

"There is no mechanism in place at (Brown's unit) to positively account for and/or track a soldier that may show signs of mental health issues," the report stated. "While SPC Brown's first-line leaders were aware of sporadic issues, because no one individual possessed all the information about SPC Brown's behavior over time, then no definitive action was taken."

Texas National Guard officials say a number of changes have been implemented since Brown's death, including more intensive suicide prevention training for supervisors and behavioral health case managers who act as liaisons between soldiers and available mental health help.

Army officials and veterans advocates say the nature of National Guard duty back home makes it more difficult for soldiers to get the mental health care they need.

"In active duty, their front-line supervisor can look them in the eye and sense that something's not right," said Dave Lewis, a retired Air Force colonel and president of the Veterans Resource Coordination Group, a Lubbock organization that seeks to connect rural veterans with services.

Such interaction is more difficult in the National Guard.

"Our challenge is that we see our soldiers one weekend a month, and you have just a few minutes to touch base with them," said Lt. Col. Alba Villanueva, director of joint family support services for the Texas Military Forces, speaking in general about suicide in the Texas National Guard.

Researchers also are looking into the role that identity plays in the growing number of suicides, especially among the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard. Unlike active-duty troops, who return to military installations and live in communities long accustomed to war, National Guard soldiers return to the civilian world, where the transition from war is far more abrupt.

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