Survivors of Military Suicide Victims Come Together to Grieve
by Rebecca Ruiz
MSNBC, May 25, 2012
For the family and friends of service members who died by suicide, Memorial Day can be not only a solemn day, but also a painful reminder that military suicides are not treated the same as combat deaths.
Kim Ruocco, the national director of suicide education and outreach at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, has experienced this isolating grief firsthand.
This weekend, she is bringing together about 100 suicide survivors at TAPS’ annual Memorial Day weekend National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors.
“[Suicide survivors] are surrounded by people whose loved ones were killed in action,” Ruocco said. “There’s a real sense that their loved one’s death was not an honorable death.”
Ruocco’s husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself seven years ago. He was a Cobra helicopter pilot who ran 75 combat missions during a five-month deployment in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He had struggled with depression in the past, particularly after a training accident in the 1990s when two Cobras collided in midair, and he lost four friends.
In February 2005, while living temporarily in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton in California, awaiting a redeployment to Iraq and considering mental health counseling, John Ruocco hanged himself.
“He was so ashamed of being depressed and not being able to do his job,” Kim Ruocco, 49, said. He was going to seek treatment, but she believes that “when he sat there and thought about what it meant to get help, how people would see you, how young Marines viewed him, how his peers viewed him … he thought the problem was him.”
Kim Ruocco, who has a master’s degree in social work, provides counseling resources to suicide survivors, helps family members secure benefits and facilitates support groups.
TAPS also tries to change procedures and policies that can be hurtful to suicide survivors, such as the exclusion of service members who died by suicide from state memorials and the distribution to suicide survivors of different Gold Star pins than the ones given to families when a service member dies in action.
This weekend’s four-day event for survivors is expected to draw more than 2,000 participants. It will feature panels and peer support groups on dealing with grief, sessions on spirituality and meditation, and events for children.
In 2011, 301 active-duty service members died by suicide, according to the Department of Defense. More than half of those deaths occurred in the Army, where the suicide rate last year was projected at 24.1 per 100,000, outpacing the national rate adjusted for the comparison of 18.6 people per 100,000.
A study released earlier this year by the U.S. Army Public Health Command found that the number of active-duty soldiers who committed suicide increased 80 percent between 2004 and 2008.
Though the Department of Defense has worked to de-stigmatize mental illness in recent years through various initiatives and training programs, challenges remain.
On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, retracted a blog piece he posted on Jan. 19 in which he called suicide “an absolutely selfish act.”
“I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess,” he wrote.
Dennis R. Swanson, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, told msnbc.com that the post was written in an emotional moment after Pittard had attended two memorial services for soldiers who killed themselves, and then learned of a third suicide.
In the 2012 fiscal year, there have been six suicides at Fort Bliss.
In his retraction, Pittard apologized for his “hurtful statement,” which he said was “not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide.”
“We must continue to do better each and every day, reaching out, encouraging and helping those in need,” he wrote.
Ruocco worries that Pittard’s original comments, which were removed from his blog, may have done damage. “By saying those words, he is telling the troops and their families that thinking about suicide is a weakness, it’s not a mental illness,” she said.
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