Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides

Surviving family members of service members who committed suicide support each other i i

hide captionSurviving family members of service members who committed suicide support each other at a TAPS seminar held in Arlington, Va.

Courtesy of TAPS
Surviving family members of service members who committed suicide support each other

Surviving family members of service members who committed suicide support each other at a TAPS seminar held in Arlington, Va.

Courtesy of TAPS

A spike in military suicides has led to a renewed focus on prevention efforts by the Defense Department. But the surviving family members often have an uneven network of support that allows some to work through their grief, while others are left feeling angry and confused.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — TAPS — is trying to fill the gaps by bringing together families from across the country to share their grief and learn.

About 250 adults and children recently gathered at a hotel in Arlington, Va., to share their stories at the TAPS seminar for surviving family members of suicide by service members. Some traveled from as far as Alaska and Hawaii.

Adding Guilt To The Grief

For many, like Denise Coutlakis, the grief is still raw. Her husband, Col. Todd Hixson, committed suicide in October 2009. The 27-year Marine veteran of several wars had been home just three weeks from his only deployment to Iraq.

Marine Corps Col. Todd Hixson and his daughter. Hixson committed suicide in 2009.

hide captionMarine Corps Col. Todd Hixson poses with his daughter. Hixson committed suicide in 2009.

Courtesy of Denise Coutlakis

When Coutlakis got the phone call saying that her husband had committed suicide, she says she did not know what to do. "I didn't know ... how to get my husband's body. I didn't know what to do next, so I called the Marine Corps," Coutlakis says.

She made the call on a Sunday, and Coutlakis says it took a while for anyone at the base to respond. "They showed up at some point and ... started talking to you about, 'This is what you need to do to move on. [Here] are the things you need to do. Here are the services,' and it gives you a sense ... [that] you have a list of things to do," Coutlakis says.

But Coutlakis says the list did not help her heal, and the suicide only added guilt to her grief.

When a service member dies in combat or in an accident, Coutlakis says, "nobody looks at the family and says, 'What was their responsibility in this? What did they not do?' "

Maintaining Mental Fitness

Families are often the first witness of a soldier in crisis, according to Bonnie Carroll, the executive director of TAPS. She says that while military families need to know the signs of suicidal behavior, the military also needs to do more to encourage soldiers to get mental health treatment — just as a coach encourages an athlete to see a trainer.

Collage created by a surviving family member i i

hide captionAn art therapy workshop at a TAPS seminar provided an opportunity for surviving family members to create collages to express their grief.

Courtesy of TAPS
Collage created by a surviving family member

An art therapy workshop at a TAPS seminar provided an opportunity for surviving family members to create collages to express their grief.

Courtesy of TAPS

"We've gotten off track in that we don't allow our service member to do that for their mental fitness in the way we insist they do that for their physical fitness, and that has to change."

A Suicide Prevention Task Force was formed under the Defense Department last year to make recommendations on how to decrease military suicides.

Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe is co-chairman of the task force, and he oversees Army treatment and medical facilities. Volpe says one way to help prevent future suicides is giving service members more "dwell time" in between deployments "to reconnect and re-establish some of the bonds that may have been weakened and [to] get back to a sense of normalcy before they start training for the next mission."

One Of The Lucky Ones

In 2007, Army Spc. Jeremy LaClaire returned from his first deployment to Afghanistan distant and unable to relate to his family. His widow, Megan LaClaire, says the Army diagnosed him as bipolar. Less than a year later, he was scheduled to be deployed to Iraq.

"And he was not going to go is what he told me," LaClaire says. "He said he didn't care what it took, but he was not going back."

LaClaire's husband shot himself in the head on their living room couch the morning of their daughter's seventh birthday. LaClaire refused to cancel their daughter's birthday party. She says her military family helped her through the grief and enabled her to be strong.

"The Army has been amazing for me. They have done nothing but support me in every way possible. I was one of the lucky ones. A lot of people weren't that lucky," she says.

LaClaire lives near an Army base and always has access to the support resources offered there. Others, like many who attended the TAPS seminar, travel across states to get that same support.

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