Special Report: Combating veteran suicide

Men, women and teenagers around our nation have put their lives at risk joining the United States Military for the purpose of protecting our country, in case one day the United States goes to war. Throughout the years, many soldiers have traveled overseas for war, seeing and experiencing the unimaginable, which has lead to suicide for many military members.

Jamie Baraibar of West Des Moines said it was a shock to everyone when her husband Scott Baraibar died from suicide in March.

“When he passed away, it was a big shock to everyone, all of his friends,” said Baraibar.  “Like I said, he was working full time with the [National] Guard, interacting with his supervisors every day.”

Baraibar said she met Scott when he came back from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 at the manufacturing facility they both worked at. She described her husband Scott as a happy person who served his country, but looking back she noticed difficult situations for him that he didn’t talk much about, such as his lack of sleep. “It was common for him to get maybe two or three hours of sleep a night, it’s like his mind would keep racing.”

Baraibar said she wished she pushed him to talk to someone about the problems. She said it was common for Scott if he was sick or not feeling well to avoid going to the doctors, risking getting discharged from the military.

“He [Scott] didn’t go to the VA or he didn’t see anybody for anything,” said Baraibar. “Looking back, I wish I would have gone with him. I would rather him be mad at me for going to the doctors than be gone.”

Baraibar said when veterans or people serving their country die by suicide, there’s more going through their head than people know. She said those veterans are being haunted by nightmares or negative experiences.

Since Scott’s suicide in March, Baraibar said her perspective on mental health has changed a lot. She said unlike a car, there’s no red light that glows when something is wrong in your mind and it’s not always easy to tell. “It’s important for family members, like if you hear somebody say that one thing that sounds a little bit off, stop and ask them, don’t ignore it.”

Iraq war veteran Brian Samson said he’s a firm believer that talking to someone can save your life, especially when you’re having bad days. He said for him, it’s easier to open up to other combat veterans, who understand what you’re going through.

“I had pretty good PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] when I first came home,” said Samson. “I was having a hard time sleeping at night, I still do now, just not to that extent because I’ve done a lot of counseling and I take my medications. But the big part of my PTSD is my nightmares from being over there.”

Up to 20 percent of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from the symptoms of PTSD in a given year, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I’m convinced that it’s those personal connections, one-on-one mentoring and showing that veteran that you care and appreciate them and what they did for our country, that could save a life,” said Gabriel Haugland of Clear Lake.

Haugland is a military attorney who represents victims of sexual assault in the military. He served his country in Afghanistan in 2010-2011. He was an infantry officer who oversaw an infantry platoon.

Haugland said what people don’t know is that military life is one of constant stress. “Those stress chemicals build up in your brain over time, because you don’t have a chance to relax. It’s constantly an adrenaline surge,” said Haugland. “It’s stress hormones, it’s am I going to die today, is today the day I have to shoot somebody, and the build up of that stress overtime is what takes its toll on the mind of the military service member.”

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affair report in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day, of those, 6 of the 20 utilized VA services.

Haugland said for many veterans, going to the VA office may be their only option. He said it can be hard to get in and get seen, which is one of the reasons he worked to try and reform the VA with the Iowa chapter of a group known as Concerned Veterans for America. He said a big part of the idea was veterans choice.

“We argued that veterans should have a card that entitles them to seek [health] care where ever they want to. In other words, if you like the VA and can get into the VA, then good for you, go to the VA.  But if you have a civilian doctor like I do, said Haugland. “And I want to see him because I trust him and I get great care from him and I can get in and get seen by him and he understands my full medical history, then I should be able to take that same card, walk it over to him and the VA pays for it. But that’s currently not the situation, veterans are forced to go to VA or pay out of pocket.”

Haugland said it’s important for veterans to know, it’s okay to seek treatment if you’re experiencing things like symptoms of PTSD. He said for him it’s symptoms such as panic attacks and night terrors.

“We have to be willing to stand up and say ‘I’m struggling with this’,” said Haugland. “We have to get rid of the stigma. We have served our country, we went through things the average person will not go through, we have to be honest, we have to be honest with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters.”

The United States Department of Veteran Affairs provides multiple options to veterans in immediate need. There is a veterans crisis line for mental health crisis intervention and support 24/7, as well as free mobile apps such as PTSD Coach, to help self-manage the disorder with options such as educational information and relaxation exercises.

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