Former U.S. Army helicopter pilot Katrina Lewison expressed frustration Thursday with difficulty faced by civilians trying to break through the military's firewall to sound the alarm about a family member who may be suicidal.
Lewison was approached recently by a frantic colleague at a Manhattan business because the woman was unable to reach her husband at Fort Riley and didn't know what to do. Lewison, who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq and serves on the Manhattan-Ogden school board, reached out to Fort Riley contacts and a team was dispatched for a welfare check. The individual was found unresponsive, she said.
The incident inspired Lewison to ask colleagues on the Governor's Military Council, which has a vested interest in reducing suicide among veteran, active duty and reserve personnel, to help remove unnecessary barriers to help.
"How do we partner with local businesses who employ veterans or who employ family members so we can get this word out on who to contact when there's problems?" she said.
Art DeGroat, executive director of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs at Kansas State University, told the council the situation illustrated how complex the landscape had become amid the national wave of military suicides. Civilians would benefit from better awareness of military practices and how to act in emergencies, he said, but there was danger of affirming for employers the flawed perception of veterans as walking time bombs.
"It's a fine balance between being open about this issue and empowering people, but at the same time being respectful that this is a problem with a small percentage of a larger population," DeGroat said.
DeGroat, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said grim statistics regarding Kansas' military personnel mirrored national trends. He said the magnitude of the problem in Kansas ranked the state 15th worse in the country. Kansas also had the fifth-highest increasing rate of veteran suicide in the country. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs documented 60 veteran suicides in Kansas during 2016, but that number escalated to 70 suicides in 2017 — a rate higher than the national average.
"This problem is growing nationwide and it's growing very rapidly in Kansas," DeGroat said.
The U.S. Department of Defense released Thursday an annual report showing suicide among active-duty military members in the U.S. armed forces climbed to 24.8 per 100,000 population in calendar 2018.
Gov. Laura Kelly, who chairs the council, said she was grateful for previous work to develop a coordinated statewide response to military suicides that was based on solid, evidence-based practices. She urged council members to consider greater use of peer-to-peer counseling.
"I grew up in a military family, so I'm very well aware of the challenges," the governor said. "Taking care of our veterans, our active service members and their families is among my administration's top priorities."
DeGroat said developing Kansas' action plan revealed impediments to men and women with emotional or behavioral problems from revealing themselves to peers. There is a potential cost to exposure, DeGroat said, because medication to treat conditions could make a person unfit for deployment.
He said some military organizations in Kansas provided cutting-edge treatment that saved lives daily, while others were poorly trained. The answer is development of a central training program to raise the standard of care, he said.
"We were doing at lot of practices because we always did them that way. A lot of science has changed. We need to really look at how accurate are the procedures and methods we are using and give it new science," he said.
He said Fort Riley demonstrated promise with treatment that relied upon sending deep magnetic waves to neurotransmitters in the brain of people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. The treatment, designed to reduce reliance on prescription medication, produced positive results in 7 of 10 active-duty and veteran subjects.
Perry Wiggins, executive director of the Governor's Military Council, said the state was among seven states to jump on the opportunity to use federal funding to develop a suicide action plan for Kansas.
"It's a tough subject for people to communicate about, but it's something we have to address. Our military armed forces are not immune to that particular crisis," Wiggins said.