The latest report by the Department of Veterans Affairs from July 2016 finds that
20 veterans committed suicide each day in 2014.
In 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated the veteran suicide rate to be 22 veterans per day, based on three million medical records from 20 states. The 2016 findings were based on 55 million medical records for every state between 1979 and 2014. The new findings opened a whole new discussion of how to best help former servicemen and women.
“One Veteran suicide is one too many,” said VA Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin in a VA press release, “and this collaborative effort provides both updated and comprehensive data that allows us to make better-informed decisions on how to prevent this national tragedy.”
This is good news for Air Force veteran Evita Yniquez De La Cruz, a long-time resident of Oak Hills, CA.
It’s been over four years since her husband James De La Cruz died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his suicide attributed to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that he developed while serving in the Iraq war.
Healing has come slowly and it is still very painful, but along her path to wholeness, she has seen a light at the end of her harrowing journey. De la Cruz joined a widow’s support group and therapy through a local Vet center when she decided to use her experience to give back to military wives and husbands who have lost their spouses to suicide by starting a non-profit organization, Veteran Suicide Awareness Project (VSAP).
Since starting VSAP, De La Cruz has organized several events including the most popular, “Carry the Fallen Ruck March.” She strategically chooses the dates for the marches: September for Suicide Awareness month, June for National PTSD, and Memorial Day which will take place this year May 28-29.
For the Memorial Day Ruck March, many participants will carry American flags with a picture of a deceased loved one. De La Cruz wears a 22-pound rucksack which also holds her husband’s boots still covered in Iraqi dirt. The number 22 represents the 2010 statistics that showed every day, 22 veterans died by suicide. “That’s a staggering number and I hope to help reduce it by bringing greater awareness to the issue.” De La Cruz said. The newest reports prove that her efforts and other organizations like hers, have indeed made a difference, bringing the number down to 20 veteran suicides per day.
De La Cruz said she and her husband, James met on a tour of duty in Iraq in 2009. The couple quickly fell in love and married in Las Vegas in December 2010. Their first child together, Lilyana, was born in April of 2011.
Things were going well for the family but De La Cruz said James, who was in the Army, would occasionally experience PTSD episodes. They grew worse over time and his thoughts eventually turned suicidal.
“My husband and I never talked much about what we saw in Iraq but he did finally tell me about his PTSD,” De La Cruz said. James suffered from chronic pain due to an injury incurred during his time served in the Middle East, preventing him from picking up their young daughter. “He started becoming more depressed as the days went on.”
The days following her husband’s death were very dark. There was even a point she didn’t think she could go on, but then when going through her husband’s things, she found his camouflage bible he kept with him in Iraq. She opened it and her eyes landed on a scripture from James 4:7 which is her husband’s name and birthday:
“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
“I knew then and there I had to be strong for my kids. Everything happens for a reason and there are some things I don’t understand. But God has provided many people including a few pastors to offer prayer and encouragement. I now have a tattoo of the verse on my wrist as a constant reminder.”
De La Cruz said James was a wonderful husband and father, who was loved by many. She believes that if it weren’t for the PTSD, he would still be alive today. And she says so would a lot of other soldiers who took their lives because of the mental disorder.
“I was ashamed to tell others that my husband committed suicide. Then the widow of a World War two vet told me not to be ashamed and that James did die in a battle — a battle that he brought home with him on the inside.”
Unfortunately, there is a stigma with depression and PTSD that De La Cruz and statistics say prevents people from getting help.
“My husband’s suicide isn’t who he was. It doesn’t define him. He was a soldier, a good father. Suicide is how he died not who he was. I want survivors to know they are not alone and not to be ashamed.”
According to VA Under Secretary for Health David J. Shulkin, since 2014, the VA has redoubled its efforts to help veterans in need of mental health care. The VA has created public awareness campaigns about the problem of suicide and created a crisis line (1-800-273-8255) that veterans can call if they need help.
There are good programs out there, at the federal governmental level, and at the nonprofit and local levels. The most important thing, some experts say, is to better the collaboration among them. Per their website, Stop Soldier Suicide is the first national civilian not-for-profit organization dedicated to preventing active duty and veteran suicide. Stop Soldier Suicide has made strategic relationships with many organizations to broaden the scope of help provided. For more information go to http://stopsoldiersuicide.org/
“As someone who has survived their spouse’s suicide, Veteran Suicide Awareness Project would like to provide surviving families of suicide with the same support that has helped me to heal,” said De La Cruz. “Together we can give these warriors and survivors hope.”
For more information about VSAP email Evita Yniquez-De La Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go to https://www.facebook.com/VeteranSuicideAwarenessProject/