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Suicide on the homefront in military families

By Kristina Kaufmann
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2155 GMT (0555 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kristina Kaufmann: After 12 years, many military families know nothing but war
  • Kaufmann: Military families live in continuous anxiety when loved one is deployed
  • She says 22 veterans take their own lives each day, but how many family members do?
  • Kaufmann: We need to help spouses, children, parents and siblings who are suffering

Editor's note: Kristina Kaufmann is executive director of the Code of Support Foundation, which tries to bridge the gap between military and civilian communities.

(CNN) -- When I married a soldier in June 2001, I knew my life was going to change. I moved from Berkeley, California, to Fort Sill, Oklahoma -- talk about a culture shock. But I was in love, and enthusiastically dove head first into a military life I knew nothing about.

And then 9/11 happened, and my husband went to war.

And then he went again, and again ... and again.

Kristina Kaufmann
Kristina Kaufmann

After more than 12 years of sustained war and multiple deployments borne by less than 1% of the population, we now have an entire generation of military families that know nothing but war. And war comes home. I've known three Army wives who've taken their own lives.

Although we're certainly not the first generation of military families to deal with the aftermath of war -- there's simply no precedent for how repeated deployments have affected the mental health of military spouses, children, parents and siblings. It's like living in a continuous state of emergency for more than a decade and never being able to fully exhale in relief. As soon as your soldier comes home, you're just counting down the days until he or she leaves and returns to the battlefield.

What is wars' true toll on the spouses and children?

Incredibly, in spite of this reality, the majority of families thrive as they transition out of military service and re-integrate into civilian life. But too many others are struggling to cope with depression, anxiety and what some veteran spouses are calling Secondary Post Traumatic Stress.

Airman returns, sees son for first time

Recent research conducted by the University of Southern California found that military connected adolescents have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts than their civilian counterparts, and other studies indicate that military spouses -- particularly those serving as caregivers to support their wounded veterans -- are more at risk to suffer mental health problems.

In addition, the stigma that prevents many service members and veterans from seeking help is just as prevalent in the military family community. This is particularly true for career noncommissioned and officer spouses. Ask a military wife how she's doing, and most will answer, "fine" -- because, what other choice does she have but to keep it together? For some families, the line between "fine" and hitting the wall going 100 miles per hour can be a very thin one.

I know firsthand how important it is that we have these conversations out loud. Back in 2006, when my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, I drove into our quiet neighborhood one evening to find many police cars and emergency vehicles. A fellow Army wife who had gone out of her way many times to make me feel welcome at our new post had taken her own life -- and the lives of her two young children.

I threw up when I found out.

As the spouse of a battalion commander, I had the opportunity to use this tragedy as a way to start an open dialogue about mental health, depression and asking for help with the wives in our unit. But I didn't. I didn't say a word. I was scared. If this lovely woman, who was widely regarded as a model volunteer and quiet leader, was capable of such an act, what did that mean for the rest of us? Better to sweep it under the rug. I remember feeling ashamed for even thinking about addressing it openly. It is a decision that I regret to this day.

We can't fix what we don't acknowledge. We do know that one active duty service member and 22 veterans take their own lives every day. Neither the Departments of Defense nor Veterans Affairs tracks the number of family members who die by suicide.

But that could be changing. Last month, at the request of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, the Defense Department Suicide Prevention Office published a report on the feasibility of tracking suicides among military family members.

According to the report, it would cost less than $1.2 million dollars over a 24-month period to expand tracking capabilities to include active duty family members. Even in this era of sequestration and budget cuts, $1.2 million is a nominal price to pay to expand our knowledge and understanding about military family suicides.

It's not a perfect solution, and it wouldn't capture the entire spectrum of National Guard, Reserve and veteran families, but it's a significant first step in the right direction. It's taken military family advocates years to just get this report issued.

Now it's up to House and Senate Armed Service Committees to respond to the report and convene hearings to address the mental health of military families. This isn't just about ensuring military readiness, it's a moral imperative. Never has this country asked so much, of so few, for so long. Now, we need our country to stand for us.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kristina Kaufmann.

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