Veterans in Mohave County have resources to fight suicide

May 7, 2019

Every day, 22 American veterans commit suicide, a 2014 estimate by the Veterans Affairs’ Office for Suicide Prevention declared that shocked the nation. That shock was recently confirmed by an April New York Times report on the wave of suicides within VA facilities.

The problem feels particularly acute in Mohave County since veterans seem to flock to Northern Arizona. The county is known for its large vet population, consisting particularly of older vets who come here to retire.

Chuck Lowes, retired from the Marine Corp after Vietnam. He lives in the area and is part of a coffee klatch that meets at McDonald’s, but considers himself a “lone wolf.”

He admits he doesn’t seek out the company of other veterans often enough. He is one of 97% of veterans who adapted well to civilian life after serving his country, but he is concerned about his friends. He lost two of them to suicide and recent news about veteran suicides in VA clinics in Georgia and Texas do not help. Lowes knows VA facilities well since he “run a helicopter into the ground in Vietnam a few times.” He said the quality of service is not ideal, but it is there and it is getting better.

Lowes likes to live in the area. The weather is great and the cost of living is low. But the 2016 veteran suicide numbers looked really bad for Arizona, with a rate of 23.4 suicides per 100,000 in the general population and a vets’ rate of 44.1.

Not exactly a homecoming

“When we left for Vietnam, we were still loved,” said Pat Farrell, a represtative of Jerry Ambrose Veterans Council in Kingman, who remains a central figure in the local veteran community. “But after the war continued, the public started turning against us.”

Ironically, unlike those who chose to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Vietnam soldiers were not volunteers. But it was they who were blamed for the war, and when they returned home they were welcomed very differently than their fathers, heroes of WWII who would later sign up for programs like the G.I. Bill.

“Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers died in Vietnam,” Farrell says. “And the rest had to sneak back home. After they retired, they had time to start wondering why they are alive when their battle buddies died.”

According to Army vet Jason Millin of Arizona Works (Mohave County Community Services Department), the suicide problem is not related to age. It is also a problem among younger veterans, for whom Millin feels for particularly, remembering his own experiences when eight years ago he returned from Iraq. Three weeks after returning to civilian work, Millin had a PTSD episode.

“I thought I was back in Iraq,” he said. “This is pretty common among vets. And we have so many veterans in this area, twice as much as elsewhere.”

Among available services, there is PTSD counseling and spouse counseling. There is a Veteran’s Treatment Court with Lake Havasu City Municipal Court Judge Mitchell Kulauli, problem-solving services for veterans struggling with addiction, mental illness, PTSD, housing, employment, and education.

Help is out there

No matter what it is: substance abuse, domestic violence, DUIs, “We are here to fill these gaps,” says Farrell. “For example, there is this veteran in Golden Valley. He had a car accident and can’t move. He can’t access his bank, get his groceries. The VA will not help him with that. It’s a matter of difference between city and rural areas. Rural counties have trouble keeping staff in VA clinics. There are less services available, and those that are available, are double booked.”

Many veterans believe local VA behavioral services are still a problem. The system is supposedly so bad there are Facebook groups set up just to complain about it. But both Farrell and Millin believe the VA is doing better and better, improving its behavioral services and shortening wait times.

Farrell takes a second before he answers a question about the correlation between veteran suicides and access to guns.

“That’s why I don’t have one,” he said. “Because I believe that sometimes all you need is a trigger, like going to the doctor and finding out that you have cancer. But some veterans relax by hunting or shooting guns and it works for them.”

Millin doesn’t believe in a correlation between guns and suicide. If someone wants to do it, they will find a way. They can use a gun, but they can also hang themselves, overdose or drink themselves to death.

“When you see a veteran walking through Home Depot, will you stop him?”

“Vets are very proud,” Millin continued. “Just look at their hats and stickers. They were out there protecting the nation. And now they have a problem accepting what seems to them a handout. They have to recognize the problem. Seek out fellow vets. Look for them in local churches and groups. Just reach out.”

According to Farrell, homeless veterans are still invisible in the region, and homelessness among vets is one of the shortest ways to suicide.

“I can tell you what we don’t need,” he says. “We don’t need the ‘not in my background’ attitude. When homeless vets get help, the whole community wins. It really takes a village.”