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Protecting our protectors [Commentary]

We are often left with nothing but unanswerable questions after we lose someone to suicide. "Why?" becomes "did we miss the signs?" and usually culminates with "what could we have done?"

In March of 2011, I asked these questions after a soldier in my company, Specialist Brandon Smith, died by suicide in his home just outside of Fort Bragg, N.C. Brandon was 24, recently married, had just bought a home and had been back from a tour in Afghanistan for about six months.

Brandon was much loved by the men and women who served alongside him. At his funeral, our commanding officer said, "it's soldiers like Brandon Smith that keep the Army moving every day." When Brandon died, my piece of the Army stopped moving. We were all too busy asking ourselves those questions.

The veteran community and the nation as a whole continue to struggle with these same questions today. Yet our country has not even begun to wrap its head around the complexity of the problem. We hear that 22 veterans a day die from suicide, but the full nature of that staggering figure has been little explored.

The often-cited estimate comes from a 2012 Department of Veteran's Affairs report. However, what is less discussed is that only 21 of 50 states were included in the study. The report admits that states, "such as California and Texas, with larger Veteran populations" are not included. Virginia, one of the few states with a growing veteran population of a younger age, is also not included.

Another less cited fact from the report is that "69 percent of all Veteran suicides were among those aged 50 years and older" — so, of those 22 a day, about 15 of them are not the young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan we imagine. While tragic cases of younger veterans often garner significant coverage, the current data show that a majority of suicides come from older generations.

Still, the prevalence of young veterans in states not included in the study could mean younger veterans' suicides are being underreported. The "22 a day" number may not be the full extent of the problem.

Which segments of veterans are most at risk? When are they most at risk? One year after separation, five years, or maybe 25? With a historic number of female veterans in our generation, are they getting one-size-fits-all mental health care that has been tailored for men? We cannot tackle the scourge of veteran suicides without fully understanding it first.

Unlike the questions we are left with after a suicide, these questions can be answered. They must be answered.

In an era when private companies use big data to predict our shopping habits, it is possible and necessary to use data collation and analysis to improve care for veterans. Better data sharing by states would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to focus resources in locations with the greatest need, target those most at risk and help tailor care to fit the community.

Both Congressional and presidential action can help with this effort. Veterans support organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America are calling for such action. Other goals that even our diametrically opposed political parties should be able to agree on include:

•Appointing a national director of suicide prevention, to develop an overarching strategy for suicide prevention and mental health support and oversee its execution.

Filling the 1,000 mental health care jobs currently unfilled at the VA and improving incentives to recruit mental health professionals.

Increasing mental health care eligibility for combat veterans from 5 to 15 years. That would ensure veterans get care when issues appear, no matter how long it takes.

Finally, the creation of an interoperable electronic health record by the VA and Department of Defense to provide a seamless transition from active duty to veteran status.

Along with any of these policy fixes, the onus remains on us as a community. We must continue to protect each other from an enemy more vexing than an insurgency, as we were trained to do in uniform. To do this we must ensure that those who are struggling seek professional care, and then ensure that seeking care does not come with a social stigma that may hurt veterans looking for work.

It's an enormous task, but one that each of us can confront in meaningful ways.

Several months ago, a fellow veteran and long-time friend texted me, "Are you in the area? I'm losing it. … I'm just worried about myself and don't trust being alone."

I got in my truck and headed over.

I refuse to again be left with nothing but questions. Our leaders must refuse the same.

Garrett Berntsen served five years in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed twice to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Berntsen is an IAVA Leadership Fellow and is currently pursuing a masters degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies while working at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. His email is garrett.berntsen@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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