BILLINGS -- When Casey Elder enlisted in the Montana Army National Guard as a 17-year-old, she was not impressed with the organization’s nearly nonexistent suicide-awareness plan.
She and her friends called it a joke.
She recalls attending a short class during basic training on how to recognize the warning signs of depression and suicide and how to report it. She recalls no specific training prior to her deployment to Iraq, where she worked as a gunner for security envoys, armed with an M249 squad automatic weapon, an M16 and pistol.
While helping rebuild Baghdad’s police departments, her Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb. She suffered permanent nerve damage in her wrist, elbow and shoulder. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
When she arrived home, Elder, now 28 and living in Billings, said there was a little more talk about suicide awareness and prevention during a one-hour PowerPoint program and she was handed an 800 number to call.
“That’s about the extent of it,” she said.
Once Elder left the Guard, she became separated from those with whom she deployed and others in the military. She did not talk to her fellow service members and became despondent.
“I never wanted to take my own life, but I did struggle with wanting to be dead and not having to deal with the struggles, the PTSD and the brain injury,” Elder said. “I just always hoped that I would be in that freak car accident.”
She struggled with depression and severe anxiety. For several years she had no friends. She disconnected from her family. She didn’t leave the house.
“What kind of life is that to live?” she asked. “It’s not that I was suicidal, but I didn’t necessarily want to be alive.”
All of the training she and her comrades received was geared toward being strong and independent. There is no training for what to do when things fall apart back home, she said.
“It’s really hard to ask for help, because of all our training. It’s almost embarrassing," she said. "I didn’t want other veterans, the guys I deployed with, to know I had PTSD. I thought I was the only one. I was embarrassed about not being as strong as everyone else in my company. I hid it.”
The unspoken rule was that if you got help, never admit it.
“It makes you that much more of a bad soldier if you’re struggling with feelings of depression and suicide,” said Elder, who now volunteers as a service officer for American Legion Andrew Pearson Post 117. “You have to fix that problem yourself if you want to keep your career. If you can’t fix that problem, you just keep getting more depressed. The cycle just perpetuates itself until you can figure out how to get better.”
The inability for active-duty soldiers and veterans to reach out for help contributes to the high suicide rate among veterans.
“It’s so important that we stop making it a negative thing and make it a reality,” Elder said.
Elder has been in counseling for much of the past five years and expects to be for the rest of her life. She still suffers from nightmares, panic attacks, bouts of depression and insomnia.
She attends school full time at Montana State University Billings, where she is working on her master’s degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling. Her PTSD and traumatic brain injury make it impossible for her to both work and go to school. She and her fiancé, who share a home in Billings, plan to marry in September 2013.
Maj. Tim Crowe, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard, does not dispute Elder’s perspective and perception of the organization’s suicide-prevention and awareness program nearly a decade ago.
Today, however, is a different story mostly due to the March 27, 2007, suicide of Spc. Christopher Dana, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and member of the Montana National Guard from Helena.
“That was a real wake-up call for our organization,” Crowe said.
After Dana’s death, a state task force concluded that “several significant deficiencies” existed in caring for returned service members. Today, the centerpiece of the Guard’s reintegration program is the Post Deployment Health Reassessment program. It includes one-on-one conversations with a behavioral health provider at designated intervals and a health screening with both a physician and a behavioral health specialist at designated intervals.
Prior to recruits leaving for basic training, they receive instruction in suicide awareness and prevention. They also receive instruction in suicide prevention both pre- and post-deployment.
Since 2007, the Guard has brought on a group of 10 chaplains, each with an assistant, who can help struggling veterans anywhere in the state. The Guard also has brought on two full-time psychological health directors and two licensed behavioral health specialists.
A crisis team is in place to respond 24/7 to any member who might be considering suicide.
In November, the entire Montana Army National Guard stood down for a mandatory eight-hour training day focused on suicide prevention.
“It is significant and telling of the commitment that the leadership and soldiers have to combating this issue,” Crowe said. “It is real. It affects everyone.”
Nearly 100 members of the Montana National Guard, including a senior chaplain, have been specially trained to help service members and families deal with the issues of suicide.
An interesting phenomenon that is occurring throughout the Guard and other branches of the military is that not all suicides are related to deployment. Younger people who have not deployed are committing suicide at a higher rate than those who have deployed, Crowe said.
To that end, Crowe said the leadership continues to identify weak spots in the organization and bolster them so suicides are not an issue. Because they still are.
Since 2007, there have been six suicides in the Montana Army National Guard. Two were this year.
There have been two suicides in the Montana Air National Guard since 2007. One was this year.