Our Shared Mission…to End Suicide

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Team Rubicon

Neil Landsberg

I didn’t know Neil Landsberg.

But I know many of the fine veterans who work for and volunteer with the organization that Neil clearly loved, Team Rubicon.

Neil was 34 years old when he took his life May 9.

By all accounts he was a fine man who had served our country with distinction as a captain in Air Force Special Operations. Neil received the Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. According to posted information about his life, Neil completed multiple overseas combat deployments while with the Air Force, and after he came home he continued to serve his community. In addition to his work with Team Rubicon, Neil volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and at Walter Reed.

I didn’t know retired Army colonel Grant Zachary either.

But I do know and respect his wife, Brigadier General Marianne Watson, who serves with the Army National Guard.

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Grant Zachary

Grant was 54 years old when he took his life—also on May 9. The pictures posted online with his obituary tell the story of a loving father, husband, and family man. Grant served our country for 20 years with the Minnesota Army National Guard as a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot, Flight Facility Commander at Holman Field, and State Aviation Officer in St. Paul. During his service he received the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, and a host of other awards. After retirement, Grant continued to serve his country in the Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command and the Army National Guard Manpower Division.

What do the lives and deaths of these two men have in common?

They both chose to serve our country—and they did so honorably. They both chose to take their lives—presumably to end a level of emotional pain and suffering that few of us can imagine. They both left behind family and friends who loved and respected them—many who will suffer the guilt and regret of wondering if they could have saved them.

And neither one of them found a way to live with or heal through the darkness that would eventually consume them.

What do their lives and deaths teach us?

How can we learn from their stories so that others who struggle and suffer find peace and chose life over death? Those who were closest to these men may be able to make sense of their deterioration. Perhaps they can identify the final disappointment, trigger, or setback. Perhaps not. We human beings are complex systems with many internal and external factors contributing to, and affecting, our perceptions, as well as our decisions.

For example, some who knew Neil Landsberg may find it hard to believe that a man who gave so much of himself to others—a man who served as a mentor and role model to so many—might not have recognized his value or his worth to his friends, his family, and his community. While engaging in service can be powerful medicine for those who come home from war, service alone may not be able to heal the invisible injuries that affect some veterans.

Indeed, my friends and colleagues at Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues—wonderful organizations that have done so much to provide valuable service opportunities for those coming home—recognize the importance of coordinating their efforts with mental health care. We are working together to identify the resources to develop collaborative and effective efforts so that we reach veterans before they give up.

Then again, we know that traditional treatments—therapy and/or medication—don’t work for everyone either.

In fact, one thing we do know about the treatments for mental illness and psychological pain is that one size doesn’t fit all. There is no single solution that heals everyone or provides relief for all who suffer. We also know that suicide is not unique to the military. Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times reported that suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade. More people currently die from suicide than in car accidents. But suicide in the military and veteran community has increased steadily and alarmingly over the last several years—and we are right to pay attention.

While it is true that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to treatment and that suicide is a national (not just military) issue, it is also true that we can do more to identify and help those in need who have served our country. And by addressing this issue within the military and veteran community, we can develop a strategy that will benefit all Americans.

More of us need to be educated, beyond identifying the issues that affect military families. We need to be able to recognize when someone is struggling or in emotional pain, and we need to know what to do to ensure their safety. We need to equip those who work with service members and veterans with appropriate skills, so that they can communicate hope to those who despair.

We want suffering veterans to understand that feeling better is possible even if the first 10 things they have tried—or the first 50—haven’t worked. We need options for mental health care, traditional and alternative approaches, that are readily available and easily accessible. And we need to develop more coordinated approaches that directly link mental health care to programs like Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, The Pat Tillman Foundation, Student Veterans of America, and other excellent organizations that engage and serve veterans. We need to be one community with a shared mission, a shared knowledge, shared skills, and shared resources.

I don’t know if we could have saved Neil or Grant. I am just so very sorry we didn’t. We may not be able to save all our nation’s service members and veterans who contemplate suicide.

But I am absolutely positive that we can save many. And that opportunity is worth fighting for.

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen is a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist who founded Give An Hour, a private non-profit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with U.S. military personnel back from war.