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Veterans’ Group Takes Data ‘Deep Dive’ to Flag Suicide Triggers

Vets are returning to civilian lifestyles and using their knowledge to help others who face mental and emotional anguish

DETROIT — When Chris Gill served in the U.S. Marine Corps, military service was a family tradition. His future was cemented around the age of 8, when he sat with his father and his veteran cohorts and a Marine entered the room.

“Everybody else kind of straightened up a little bit,” Gill told Zenger News. “There was a different air of respect for that guy. That was kind of what started it for me.”

His awe turned to fear decades later when Gill found himself confronted by statistics showing how many servicemen and women take their own lives as a result of their service, haunted by memories of gunfire, shrapnel, explosives and blood.

Gill enlisted in 1995 and spent 11 years in the corps, exiting service in 2006 as a staff sergeant. He was a helicopter crew chief who flew the now-decommissioned Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight. He was deployed to the Mediterranean twice in the late 1990s, spending some time in the Balkans for a majority of peacekeeping operations. He spent four years as a survival invasion and resistance instructor, teaching at Fort Rucker in Alabama.

But it was his a year in Iraq flying casualty evacuation missions beginning in 2005 that haunted him. He was located in the Al Anbar Province, an area heavily patrolled by Marines.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Chris Gill at Operation Iron with the Campus Veterans Associations of The University of Alabama and Auburn University. (Courtesy: Chris Gill)
Chris Gill (at left) is pictured as a survival instructor circa 2001. (Courtesy: Chris Gill)

On Jan. 5, 2006, with Iraqis fighting back against U.S. forces who backed insurgents, suicide bombers attacked civilians in Ramadi and Karbala.Gill was in Ramadi, in the first helicopter on scene to transport casualties to small field hospitals in Baghdad. It was estimated that about 80 were killed in Ramadi and 45 in Karbala, including five American soldiers.

“As far as my combat experience, that was sort of a pivotal moment,” he said. “We were seeing casualties every day. That was one of the biggest events that was so astonishing … I just couldn’t understand it. We were there, ready to fight. But (the bombers) wouldn’t fight us and only hurt their own people. Seeing that, seeing the carnage of it — it stuck with me.”

New-age data accumulation

Memories of war stick with most veterans. And recollections of death and destruction often become too much to bear.

Jim Lorraine launched the veteran nonprofit America’s Warrior Partnership in 2011, integrating wounded, ill and injured veterans into the communities that might otherwise be unaware of those teetering on the edge of suicide.

“We fill the gaps that exist between current veteran service organizations by helping nonprofits connect with the veterans, military members and families in need: bolstering their efficacy, improving their results and empowering their initiatives,” said Lorraine. “All of our programs, projects and initiatives revolve around … empowering local communities to proactively and holistically serve them.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can in many cases care for vets and their families, Lorraine acknowledged that the agency only serves less than half of them directly. “We feel there is a tremendous opportunity for the VA to partner with community-based programs who know their community and know their veterans,” he said.

An initiative called Operation Deep Dive now identifies suicide risk factors among former servicemen and women Cheree Tham, co-founder and vice president of programs and initiatives for AWP, is the project’s principal investigator, and works alongside Dr. Karl Hamner of the University of Alabama.

Chris Gill (right) is pictured with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron HMM-162, circa 2000. (Courtesy: Chris Gill)
Lindsay Escher (seated inside vehicle) is pictured during her first deployment in 2001, in southwest Asia. (Courtesy: Lindsay Escher)

AWP and the university are in the third year of a four-year suicide prevention study underway in 15 states, funded by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

“We’re trying to find out things that aren’t already being studied, the parts of the middle we don’t already know,” Tham said, alluding to data about risk factors that could be identified before a veteran takes his own life. That includes their community environments, the impact of less-than-honorable discharges and the fallout when vets receive support services from the VA. The study looks at deaths due to drug overdoses, asphyxiation, accidental gunshots, drownings and high-speed, single-driver accidents. It also includes so-called “suicide by cop,” in which a criminal suspect provokes a hail of gunfire on purpose.

The project has looked at more than 57,000 veteran deaths, tracking anomalies that can skew suicide data. In Florida, 1,531 deaths of former military personnel were classified as suicides. That number now appears to understate the problem by 20%. In Minnesota, the statistics were 24% off.

Shifting the mindset

Lindsay Escher, 39, originally from Buffalo, New York, graduated from high school in 1999 and opted for a career in the U.S. Air Force, deploying after the 9/11 terror attacks to Southeast Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.

“Pre-9/11 was a whole different ballgame,” Escher said. “We’re still in that Cold War mentality. Once 9/11 hit, it was hit the ground running, get deployed. Nobody knows where they’re going.”

She recalled landing in Kandahar, Afghanistan on a midnight flight, nosediving into an airfield and ducking live fire to rescue allies for evacuation.

“It was pretty eye-opening,” she said. “I don’t think I was even 21 yet. It was just one of those experiences where you’re like, ‘Did that just happen?’”

She moved to South Carolina in 2009 and joined the Air National Guard, but a fractured backbone and single parenthood forced her exit. Later, in 2017, she learned that a “happy-go-lucky” veteran who showed no sign of mental illness had killed himself with his own service weapon.

“It was a complete blow to everything I knew,” Escher said. “Normal was no longer normal. ; It rocked me, it rocked people close to him. Our whole unit was in this state of, ‘What did we miss?’”

“I say this with respect to all and to the families: I think it’s the darkest place you can be to take your life, but it’s awful selfish,” she said. “I don’t think at that moment they are thinking of anything rational. They are not thinking of the fallout from suicide. It ripples to every part of their lives.”

Lindsay Escher poses with her service dog, Raela, during a hike with Upstate Warrior Solution (UWS) Higher Ground Hikers, which led her to UWS and started her journey as a fellowship program manager. (Courtesy: Lindsay Escher)

Now she works for the nonprofit Upstate Warrior Solution, running monthly workshops and helping military veterans change their personalities and “get them out of their military mindset” to operate in a civilian world.

Looking at the person in the mirror

Before Nate Graeser became a U.S. Army chaplain in Los Angeles, his mother encouraged him to learn discipline by enlisting. He joined the Guard at age 18, preferring stateside service. The 9/11 attacks came during his first week in college. He was never deployed overseas.

“I always kind of lived in two worlds,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges for veterans: the definition of ‘veteran’ is nuanced.”

Graeser entered a seminary at age 30 and now describes himself as a “crisis counselor” for troubled veterans. He is licensed as a clinical counselor and has earned masters and doctoral degrees in social work.

“I’m often the person who stands before someone who doesn’t want to live anymore. I see people in their worst, most fragile moments,” he said.

“Suicide has always been a casualty of veterans,” Graeser said, citing “atrocities and betrayals” in the fog of war that have been military staples for centuries.

“There’s not an acknowledgement or a caretaking or awareness of that anymore,” he said, citing cases where service members are thrust into dangerous environments and sent home with little more than a “thanks a lot.”

 

‘A different kind of machine’

Gill’s marriage fell apart after he left the Marines, and job leads dried up. He couch-surfed through divorce proceedings, living in unstable conditions the VA would classify as homelessness. He needed help but went without it, haunted by well-meaning people who treat vets “like they’re broken. The problem is, they’re not broken. They’ve been functioning in a different kind of machine.”

He retooled, remarrying in 2011 and earning a sociology degree. Now he’s a graduate research assistant, dissecting veterans’ early death and mortality rates for a coming dissertation in support of a Ph.D in educational psychology, with a focus on military transitions.

He said suicide doesn’t happen in a mental vacuum, and that even obesity can be a contributing factor. And so can “social connection,” and finding “meaningful and purposeful work.”

Gill said deciding to live after seeing combat is like fixing and maintaining aircraft, and then flying them once they’re understandable.

“Accolades don’t mean much in the real world,” he said. “You’re going to have to figure out who you are.”

(Edited by Kristen Butler and David Martosko)