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Is the plan to curb military suicide working? Mississippi veterans aren't so sure.

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A stranger comes home from war

When Ray Billeaud arrived at Camp Shelby for drills in 2007, he realized one member of the National Guard's 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team was missing.

“We showed for drill and he wasn’t there," the Kiln native said. "And that’s when we found out what happened."

The missing soldier had committed suicide.

“There were no signs of it up until it happened,” Billeaud said. He had been training with the fellow sergeant just weeks before his death. “We were together in this school going out, hanging out, having a good time and everything."

“It was a huge devastation to the older guys because it makes you think, ‘Well is this me? Is this what’ I’m going through? What caused it?’ Without him there, you have so many unanswered questions as to why, what and when it all started to go wrong,” Billeaud said.

The soldier is one of — at least — six members of the 155th that have committed suicide since they were first deployed to Iraq, according to Billeaud. The unit served in Iraq from 2004-06 and 2009-10, and before that guarded mass graves in Bosnia.

And now, the 155th is preparing for another deployment to the Middle East in June. When its members return, there are more resources than ever before to help them transition back to civilian life.

But the rate at which Guard members commit suicide shows no sign of decreasing, despite considerable effort by the National Guard and the Department of Defense.

Five members of 155th committed suicide in 2016 and 2017 alone, said Lt. Col. Christian Patterson, director of public affairs for the Mississippi National Guard.

Across the state, a total of seven Guard members killed themselves in that time — six in Army National Guard and one in Air National Guard. Patterson was unable to provide numbers from earlier years. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that there were 74 veteran suicides in Mississippi from 2014-17.

“It was happening quite often,” Billeaud said, “to the point that the National Guard actually had to really start focusing on” suicide prevention. Classes were set up to teach soldiers how to recognize signs of trouble.

“As a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer), we had to really start paying attention to our soldiers and watching them for signs of depression and everything else” he said. “That became more of a focus than just about anything else.”

Ending the trend

In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that expands mental health care for veterans transitioning out of the military to civilian life. The order took effect March 9.

Now former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had identified suicide among veterans as his top clinical priority, and determined that within a year of leaving the military, people are between 1 1/2 to two times as likely to commit suicide as any other age group, according to The Washington Post.

The federal government estimates about 20 veterans per day kill themselves.

“That is just an unacceptable number, and we are focused on doing everything we can to prevent these veterans’ suicides,” Shulkin said.

About 265,000 service members transition out of the military each year, Shulkin said. In 2016, there were 51,000 National Guard members who returned to civilian life after deployment. The cost of providing each of them extended mental health coverage “will be in the magnitude of a couple hundred million dollars per year” coming out of the Defense Department and VA budgets. Those two agencies had 60 days to come up with a plan to implement the executive order.

As the 155th again prepares for deployment, their leadership feels they are prepared to prevent the trend from continuing.

“We want to certainly head this off before this happens,” said Lt. Col. William Walley, commander of the 106th Brigade Support Battalion. “They’re doing a great job of educating everybody to look for those risk factors in soldiers.” The 106th is deploying in support of the 155th.

Walley said the key is “making folks aware of the support channels that are available.”

Sgt. First Class James Huffman of Brookhaven will be on his third deployment with the unit, and he knows members that have killed themselves.

He called the number of military suicides nationwide “appalling.”

“That’s not where we need to be, we need to be providing help to the service members and their families.

“When they are coming off of active duty, they feel alone and lost, it’s not the same as what they just experienced for 12 months being in country, that team, that camaraderie that’s been built. They lose that. That’s a challenge”

“Bottom line, leaders have to do a good job of being there. Know you’re people, know your service members and their families and be relational. If you’re that, they’ll come to you with any problem that you have.”20 suicides a dayThe number of veteran suicides is disputed. Many veterans groups cite a figure of 22 a day, but a more recent study by the Veterans Administration put it at 20.

“How do they know that there’s just 20 a day?” asked Theresa Botts of Spartan Alliance. “There has to be more. There’s too many funerals for there to be only 20 a day.”

Spartan Alliance’s main goal is to prevent veteran suicides by providing support to ones who are at risk. Recently, it organized a weekend retreat for 50 veterans and their caregivers at the Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort in D’Iberville. They are hosting another in October.

Veterans spent the weekend relaxing and learning about ways they can help themselves and fellow veterans. Getting involved in activities was a big focus.

“When a veteran sits at home, all they do is they think. They just think about the war, about things that happened in the war, about men that died, about men under them that died,” said Scott Botts, an 18-year Marine veteran with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury(TBI) and other physical injuries.

Another key Spartan Alliance concept is the Battle Buddy, a fellow veteran that a veteran can talk to when they need help and understanding.

“When these guys go into the military, they develop a relationship with one another that is profound,” said Theresa Botts. “These guys are joined at the hip. They build a brotherhood that you don’t see in the outside world.”

Bott said Spartan Alliance Weekends help provide a new support network for veterans and their caregivers.

“You’re able to reach out to somebody instead of calling a crisis line,” Scott said.Crisis linesThe VA has had a Veteran’s Crisis Line since 2007. Online chat and text messaging features have been added since.

The line is “a real valuable initial resource,” said John Bauer, Suicide Prevention Case Manager at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi.

“We get a whole range of calls. We have people who are depressed, we have people who are quite anxious, people whose lives have fallen apart.”

Bauer said it has helped save lives.

The crisis line is staffed with responders who are specifically trained to counsel veterans and service members. “Some” of the responders are veterans, according to their website. Veterans say that is a weakness.

“You want to talk to someone who knows what you’ve been through or what you’re going through,” said Larry Bothner of Gulfport, an Air Force special operations veteran and Spartan Alliance volunteer.

Another suicide prevention hotline, Vets4Warriors, is staffed only with veterans. It was established in 2012 through Rutgers University in New York, and is not a part of the VA.

Their website explains that they are “peers who have been trained in peer support. We are able to assist callers with a variety of issues that we ourselves, in most cases, have already been through.”Looking for answersIn addition to the Crisis Line, the VA has invested heavily in suicide prevention research. The Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Centers and Specialized Mental Health Centers of Excellence are looking at specific causes of suicide such as stress-related mental health issues, and a center established in 2006 focuses specifically on Post-9/11 veterans.

Despite these efforts, the problem persists.

Theresa Botts said while her husband has not attempted suicide, he has told her many times, “I could have very easily been one of the 22.”

“This is a plague,” she said. “This is a crisis for people who have put their life on the line for your freedom, this is a national crisis, and it’s going to take every one of us to figure out the problem and to get enough help to get these guys stable.”