Michael Rolack displays a memorial pamphlet about his Marine grandson March 15 at his Phoenix home. Nick Rolack killed himself on March 7, 2012, after returning from Iraq. Suicide among veterans is not a new problem, but the incidence has risen in recent years, prompting military leaders to vow to increase prevention efforts. (Patrick Breen / The Arizona Republic via Gannett)
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PHOENIX — Michael Rolack never heard the gunshot, only the screams of his grandson’s fiancée.
Running to the front yard of his Phoenix home, he saw the body of 28-year-old Nicholas Rolack, a Marine Corps veteran, who had just put a bullet in his head.
Thinking back on that March 7, 2012, night, Michael Rolack’s voice catches in grief.
“Just two hours before he killed himself, we had been watching a movie. I knew he was having a hard time after coming back from Iraq, but he wouldn’t talk; he wouldn’t share nothin’,” Rolack said. “His hurt must have been so big that he couldn’t get around it. Maybe he felt like he had to do it to keep from hurting us.”
Suicide among veterans and active military members is not a new problem, but the number of incidents has risen significantly in the last decade, reaching what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described as “epidemic” levels. His statement to Congress coincided with efforts by the military and the Veterans Affairs Department to ramp up suicide-prevention programs.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of veteran suicides rose from 20 to 22 per day, the VA reported last month. The total grew from an estimated 7,300 suicides in 2000 to an estimated 8,030 in 2010, for a difference of 730.
A separate report by the Defense Department revealed the number of suicides among active-duty troops also has risen, from 301 in 2011 to almost one a day during 2012.
The numbers are increasing even as veterans have access to more help than ever before. The VA and other groups have improved counseling services and launched other programs, including social-media initiatives. Over the past few years, tens of thousands of people have participated in online chats or sent text messages to share information or seek help.
In 2007, after Congress passed the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act designed to assist veterans and members of the military, the VA established the Veterans’ Crisis Line. And after a presidential executive order in August, the VA increased hotline staffing by 50 percent. To date, it has handled about 740,000 calls and claims 26,000 rescues of suicidal veterans.
All VA medical centers and large outpatient facilities employ suicide-prevention coordinators, and the VA has launched a yearlong public-awareness campaign, “Stand By Them,” to educate families and friends on how to seek help.
Experts say job loss, relationship and money problems, violence, drug use, and post-traumatic stress disorder often are catalysts for suicide.
Even the most hardened individuals can break down when the normal life they expected doesn’t happen, said David Klein, the suicide-prevention coordinator for the VA Health Care System in Phoenix. He urges counselors to validate what the veteran is saying without being judgmental.
“You don’t want anything to sound rote. You want to show empathy and concern, not like you’re reading something,” said Klein, a licensed social worker. “You don’t tell them, ‘Suck it up, Marine.’ This is the worst thing that has happened to this veteran.”
Danny Guckenburg, a counselor at the Phoenix Vet Center, said some veterans are reluctant to seek help for mental-health concerns.
“A lot of them view that because they didn’t come back with an amputation, they don’t think they deserve help. There is a need to validate that their wounds are just as important. This is the place they can open up about the pain they are experiencing. They can get a sense of hope that is missing.”
Phoenix resident Christopher Hughes has been using the services at the Phoenix Vet Center since May 2012. The Army sergeant, who enlisted 10 years ago, said he tried several times to kill himself.
The first attempt occurred at Christmas 2008, while he was still on active duty at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash. “I had hurt my back and was depressed about life,” Hughes said. “I found myself on the Puget Sound. I put a 9 millimeter in my mouth, pulled the trigger and nothing happened. I got mad at the weapon and threw it in the water.”
He later tried slicing his wrists. Another time he combined drugs and alcohol. None of his efforts succeeded, he said, because he was “probably too drunk to do it right.”
Hughes, 29, said his attempts came when he was overcome by feelings of worthlessness and anger. “You break the threshold and it becomes so intense, you think it’s better to end it,” he said.
Now serving in the Army National Guard, Hughes hopes to assemble a group of volunteer vets who will help each other 24/7. “When the vet centers are closed, we would be there to go meet them at 2 in the morning,” he said.
Michael Rolack wishes his grandson had reached out for help after returning from his four-year tour.
“I’m a Vietnam vet, and I have PTSD,” he said. “If there was anything related to war that bothered him, I thought he would be able to talk to me. He was a beautiful person, very intelligent. And he’s never going to return. He’s never coming back.”
Rolack knows many people get angry when someone like Nicholas, who had four young children, takes his own life.
“But there is nothing to be angry about. That person is struggling, and we don’t know that pain, and I pray I never do.”