Veterans taking their own lives

Veterans taking their own lives

CREATED Aug 2, 2012

Reporter:  Jennifer Waddell
Web Producer: Rikki Mitchell

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Our bravest men and women give it all in defense of freedom. When they come home, many cannot break free from the thoughts that haunt their minds.

The Pentagon's numbers show a rate of one veteran killing him or herself every day.  It is a major concern for the military and should be a concern for all of us as these heroes are our family members, friends and neighbors.

"I thought about suicide a couple of times I thought that was the only way out," says Richard Watson, a Vietnam veteran.

Richard Watson, Ryan Schumacher and Erich Kempf fought for our country. Each one has a story. Each one nearly became a statistic. Each one thought about taking their own lives and they are sadly not alone. In fact, the department of defense says the suicide rate among veterans is disproportionately high.

A June report from the pentagon shows there have been at least 154 suicides among active-duty troops in 2012, a rate of nearly one each day. If that rate continues, it would be a record high number of suicides. And while just one percent of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the U.S.

Watson's story: Retired navy. Three tours in Vietnam. A couple of years ago, he lost his vision, ended up at the Southern Arizona Veteran's Affairs Clinic. That visit, he says, changed his life.

"She was asking me questions and the wife popped up over my shoulder and started answering these questions and I turned around and jumped all over her for no good reason," he says. "And right there that triage nurse said 'I think we need to get you into this PTSD clinic' and 'I said what is PTSD?'"

Watson lived for decades with nightmares, violent episodes, alcoholism. And yes, he thought about ending it all, but never truly understood why.

"All of those experiences I had in the Korean war I did not realize were like stones on my back I've been carrying for 60 years carrying all this dirt with me," he says.

Erich Kempf's story: Retired navy, 20 years. Served in Iraq. When thoughts of suicide overcame him, He turned to his religion and the Southern Arizona VA Health Clinic.

"I think it's saved my life because it taught me skills how to deal with my anger and rage and overcome that kind of thing," he says.

And Ryan Schumacher's story: Retired army, two tours in Iraq. Despite the army's mandatory 10 day re-integration program, he felt lost without a mission.

"I was dealing with alcoholism, had a lot of depression, still do," he says. "I had a lot of suicidal thoughts, acted on them once. It's been a rough road. Just you have to realize it doesn't take as much strength as people think to ask for help."

These men share more in common than having served. They wish the military would do more to screen for PTSD. They would recommend veterans talk with someone about their problems. And they all got the help they needed so they could experience life, sometimes as if for the first time.

"You just brought out a feeling I haven't had for 60 years," says Watson. "I never knew what it felt like to have a tear come down."