Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides The increasing number of military suicides has left an indelible impact on surviving family members. An uneven network of support has allowed some to work through their grief and heal faster, while others are left angry and confused. The nonprofit group TAPS tries to fill the gap by bringing grieving families across the country together.
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Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides

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Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides

Supporting Those Left Behind By Military Suicides

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Military suicides are on the rise, and that has raised a number of important questions, first about the Pentagon's prevention efforts to reach out to service men and women before it's too late, but also about helping the wives and husbands, children and parents who must deal with the crushing grief of losing a loved one.

As NPR's Sarah Gonzalez reports, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, is bringing families together to share their pain, to heal and to learn.

SARAH GONZALEZ: About 250 adults and children, some from as far as Alaska, gathered at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, this month to share their stories at the TAPS seminar. For some, like Denise Coutlakis, the grief is still raw. Her husband, Colonel Todd Hixson, committed suicide in October of last year. The 27-year Marine veteran had been home just three weeks from Iraq.

Ms. DENISE COUTLAKIS: I didn't 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.

GONZALEZ: It was Sunday, Coutlakis says it took a while for anyone to respond.

Ms. COUTLAKIS: They showed up at some point and, you know, 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. It gives you a sense of you know, you have a list of things to do.

GONZALEZ: Coutlakis says the suicide just added guilt to the grief.

Ms. COUTLAKIS: The difference between someone dying in combat or in an accident or whatever the case, nobody looks at the family and says: What was their responsibility in this? What did they not do?

GONZALEZ: Families are often the first witness of a soldier in crisis, according to Bonnie Carroll, the executive director of TAPS. She says 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.

Ms. BONNIE CARROLL (Executive Director, TAPS): We don't allow our service members to do that for their mental fitness in the way we insist they do it for their physical fitness.

GONZALEZ: Major General Philip Volpe oversees Army medical facilities. As co-chair of the Department of Defense's Suicide Prevention Task Force, he also makes recommendations on how to keep suicide numbers down. One way, he says, is to give service members more dwell time in between deployments.

Major General PHILIP VOLPE (Co-Chair, Suicide Prevention Task Force, Department of Defense): To re-connect and get back to a sense of normalcy before they start training for the next mission.

GONZALEZ: Army soldier Jeremy LaClaire returned from his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 distant and unable to relate to his family. His wife Megan says the Army diagnosed him as bipolar. Less than a year later, he was deploying to Iraq.

Ms. MEGAN LaCLAIRE: And he was not going to go is what he told me. He said he didn't care what it took, but he was not going back.

GONZALEZ: LaClaire's husband shot himself in the head on their living room couch the morning of their daughter's seventh birthday.

Ms. LaCLAIRE: And I refused to cancel her birthday. And at one house next door, I was planning my husband's funeral, and at my other girlfriend's house, I was having my daughter's birthday.

GONZALEZ: LaClaire says her military family enabled her to be so strong.

Ms. LaCLAIRE: 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.

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

Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

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