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Endless struggle: Vermont’s veteran suicide rate is among highest in the nation

Peng Chen | VTDigger

In Valerie Pallotta’s eyes, her son, Josh, was always determined to do what he liked, including fighting for his country.

When Josh came home one day in 2009 and told her he was joining the Vermont National Guard, she asked if he realized he would be deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“He said ‘I know. That’s why I’m joining’,” Valerie said.

Josh scored so high in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test that he could choose whatever branch in the military he wanted, according to his mother. He opted for infantry because he knew that he would be on the frontlines. He was 20.

Valerie said Josh was a teddy bear type who enjoyed snowboarding, football and lacrosse. He also had a great sense of humor that made everyone want to be around him. But things changed after he lost two members of his unit in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan.

“That totally changed him,” Valerie said.

At 21, it was the biggest loss of Josh’s life. He came back to Vermont a few months later. Valerie said Josh was OK at first. He worked as a transportation security officer at Burlington International Airport. But then problems began to crop up. He had a hard time sleeping, which led to missing work and ultimately, being fired.

Valerie said Josh had another job later that required him to make sandwiches and mop the floors. He really liked it and was good at it, but the business closed. Josh was left with “What do I do now?” said Valerie, and felt he had few choices.

Soon, his mother said, Josh lost motivation and purpose in life. In September 2014, he ended his life. He was 25.

Valerie had not spoken with her son during the nine months before he took his own life. She took a tough love approach, hoping Josh would buck up. But that backfired on her, and she has had to live with a terrible sense of guilt, she said.

What’s worse, she said, time doesn’t heal.

“This is the worst thing to ever happen to me. I will never have grandchildren. He was my only child. I will never see my child get married and have kids,” she said.

Veterans more likely to kill themselves

Vermont’s veteran suicide rate has been higher than the national rate almost every year from 2005 to 2016, according to the veteran suicide data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Data shows there were 25 veteran suicides in Vermont in 2016 — a rate of 56.8 per 100,000 people. That put the state’s rate 88.7% higher than the national rate.

When compared to figures from other Northeastern states, including New England, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, Vermont’s veteran suicide rate is about 138% higher.

Veteran suicide rate by state, 2005-16

According to the VA’s data, Vermont’s veteran suicide rate has been increasing since 2005. The number peaked in 2011 with 58.3 per 100,000 and dropped to 27.7 in 2013. But it jumped to 45.5 the next year. The VA’s 2016 National Suicide Data Report said the veteran suicide rate was 1.5 times greater than that of general population.

According to the VA, there were 43,191 veterans in Vermont in 2017. The department defines a veteran as someone who had been activated for federal military service and was not serving at the time of death, according to its 2016 data release FAQ. The suicide data also includes former guardsmen and reservists who never federally activated.

Meghan Snitkin, suicide prevention coordinator for the White River Junction VA Medical Center, said the findings were based on suicide deaths reported to the National Death Index. Deaths are attributed to the state where they occurred. That is, if someone from New York died in Vermont, the case would be included in the Vermont data, said Snitkin.

Veteran suicide data from 2017 and 2018 have not yet been made available.

Robert Burke, director of the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs, said there is no definitive explanation for Vermont’s high veteran suicide rate. Some experts say both a high rate of gun ownership and difficulty reintegrating into society may cause veterans to be more likely to kill themselves.

Nationally, the highest percentage of suicides have occurred with white males between the ages of 45 and 60, said Burke. Most of them were not combat veterans. According to the VA data, among the 25 Vermont veteran suicides in 2016, more than half were males and 12 were in the 55 to 74 age group.

The Vermont Department of Health has been tracking veteran suicides as well. Ben Truman, spokesperson for the department, said the department considers veterans to be those whose death certificates are marked “Yes” for the question “veteran of any war.” He also said the data consists of Vermont residents who died in Vermont.

According to Health Department data, the number of veteran suicides fluctuated in the past eight years. It was in the mid-teens from 2014 to 2016 but dropped to two in 2017. Last year, the number increased to six. Almost 82% of veteran suicides were gun deaths in the past eight years, the Health Department data shows.

Vermont 3-year moving average suicide rate, 2011-17

Based on this data, VTDigger used the three-year moving average to calculate Vermont’s veteran suicide rate. The moving average — used to smooth out fluctuations and highlight longer-term trends — had been increasing from 27.8 per 100,000 people for 2011 to 2013 to 44.8 for 2014 to 2016. It went down to 31.6 for 2015 to 2017. On the other hand, the three-year moving average rate of suicides in the general population stayed between 16 and 17 per 100,000 people from 2011-2013 to 2015-2017.

Thomas Delaney, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, said many factors contribute to veteran suicide, including traumatic experiences and familiarity with firearms.

“If you’re somebody that has been trained to use firearms, you’re also more likely to own firearms,” Delaney said.

When it comes to the fatality rate for different means of suicide, he said a firearm is the most lethal, with an 85% chance of death, while poison or drugs have a 5% chance.

The accessibility of firearms in Vermont may also explain why the suicide rate is so high. Delaney said people just go into a gun shop, pass the National Instant Criminal Background Check, and they walk out with a gun.

“It’s one stop, one step,” he said.

But in states like Massachusetts, it’s harder to get a gun, said Delaney, where purchasers pay higher taxes and are required to obtain a license and training.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed legislation in 2018 to expand background checks to private firearm sales and increase the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21. But he vetoed another bill this year that would have required a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases.

Delaney said the suicide rate among the entire population in Vermont was about 17 per 100,000 people during 2008 to 2017, 30% higher than the national average.

Snitkin said besides high firearm ownership, people in a rural state like Vermont, including veterans, tend to be more isolated and have less access to resources.

“When people are transitioning from active duty to veteran status, that transition period can be a risky time,” Snitkin said.

Veterans’ jobs, lives and people around them are all changing, she said. Depending on the type of support and resources available to veterans, that period can put them in a higher risk of suicide as well.

‘Iron curtain’ drops down

Matija Gubic, who served with Josh Pallotta in Afghanistan, said he had planned to spend 20 years in the military until physical challenges made it impossible. He signed up for the National Guard in 2006.

During service, Gubic said all the members usually carried rucksacks or assault packs while out on missions. The packs weighed about 100 pounds, and included the M225 mortar weapon system, the plate carriers and its rounds, a weapon and helmet.

Four years after joining the military, Gubic realized he had back issues when he finished a two-day mission.

“I felt a sharp pain in my lower middle back as if my spine snapped,” he said. “Sharp nerve pain was constant since that day and kept getting worse especially when I came home.”

He said he needed his wife to help him get out a vehicle because he couldn’t move. Before that, he had never had medical issues.

The next problem was his shoulder. Since he was discharged from the National Guard five years ago, Gubic said he has lost range of motion. He can’t use his left hand to drive. Nor can he put a belt around himself. He is 41.

“I’m too young for them,” he said of his injuries.

When veterans return from deployment, Gubic said, many people expect them to be fine and happy about reintegrating into society. But for Gubic, that smooth transition didn’t happen. It took him almost a year to get used to “being back home.” At the same time, there was a lot of anger, too.

Gubic said squad leaders relayed a message from someone with a higher position in the military of a promise to get the soldiers jobs after they are discharged. But it didn’t happen, Gubic said, and he ended up collecting unemployment benefits.

When he first went to the VA for his physical issues, a doctor took an X-ray and told him “there’s nothing wrong.” After calling the director of the clinic, Gubic said, he had an MRI that showed all the problems.

“You have to prove that you have injuries,” he said.

The emotional toll has affected him the most. He served in the military for nearly nine years and watched people die in front of him.

When he returned to the United States, he didn’t enjoy life the way he used to. He said even when he is with people who are laughing and having a good time, there might be an “iron curtain” that drops in front of him out of the blue. While he may appear OK, something has changed inside of him.

“I’m not as happy as they are,” Gubic said.

He attended the funeral of another member of his unit in June. The man was young and healthy, had a daughter and enjoyed riding motorcycles and snowboarding. Still, something made him end his life.

Gubic said he had thought about hurting himself a few times. But when he looked at his 4-year-old son, his wife and his parents, he knew he couldn’t do it to them.

Now he is studying at Champlain College. He also works with Valerie Pallotta to raise awareness of veteran suicides. Gubic said stopping unnecessary wars should be the first step.

“How do we prevent suicides if we keep sending our men and women overseas,” he said. “We’re setting up for failure.”

Becoming part of the community again

Joshua Gerasimof, 39, is a former Airborne soldier. He was deployed in Kosovo for three years for a peacekeeping mission until being seriously injured in a training accident. He had multiple breaks in his ankles and lower extremities, and the injuries resulted in his discharge.

Then, when his companions were being deployed in U.S. military actions after the 9/11 attacks, Gerasimof felt an emotional burden because he wasn’t serving with them.

“You knew all the guys and you knew where they were going,” he said. “You trained with them for three or four years and then you were not there.”

He felt ashamed and guilty. Gerasimof, now a certified veteran peer support specialist with VA, said he’s seen the same issues affect a lot of veterans.

Clinic, discusses how as a veteran himself, he can connect better with clients seeking counseling at the VA. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Just like Gubic, Gerasimof said he has been affected by what he experienced in deployment and has what is known as a moral injury — the emotional impact of actions that are against one’s conscience or moral values. He was around 20 when he served.

After being discharged, Gerasimof said, he had a hard time sleeping. He remembered what his father, a Vietnam veteran, told him: “Whatever happened, you put that in a box, you put it under your bed and you leave it there.”

Gerasimof said he took his father’s advice, but it didn’t work. He also went to the VA medical center in another state and got some medicine that helped him sleep but made him feel woozy as well. He said what really helped him was talking and being with other veterans, and being outdoors to exhaust his body. That’s why he became a peer support specialist. It also helps him manage anxiety.

“I’m lucky enough to channel it by helping other veterans and creating spaces for veterans to connect and feel part of the community. That’s the big part,” he said.

David Hurne, 48, has benefited from Gerasimof’s help. Hurne recently became a veteran peer support apprentice with the VA in June. Discharged from the Marine Corps in 1995, Hurne said he didn’t feel he needed any assistance from the medical system. Then depression and anxiety started to strike, and he struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse.

Although he had a supportive family, Hurne said, he didn’t think he could talk to them. He isolated himself, which he thinks is one of the reasons for veterans’ high suicide rates, because he didn’t want to hurt anyone and didn’t know how to deal with his feelings.

Hurne said he tried to get away from those issues by drinking, which drew him away from people that he cared about and eventually to a “dark place” where no one was around. That is when peer support came in. He said he needed someone who could relate to him and give him answers about what he could do.

“With Josh (Gerasimof), I’m kind of a living example of why this works because he’s the one that convinced me to get help,” Hurne said.

Gerasimof said he looked at veterans’ strengths when he engaged with them. From his perspective, Hurne was a well-spoken individual, a skilled fly fisherman and good with other veterans.

“So let’s build on those skills and see what we can get,” Gerasimof said.

People usually become more and more talkative along the way. Then he can ask about their lives and families. He said peer support is powerful by just getting back to basics ─ making veterans feel a part of the community or tribe.

Laura Gibson, associate chief of mental health for White River Junction VA System, said there are 11 veteran peer support specialists and apprentices in Vermont. They are supervised by clinicians and trained to spot warning signs. Gibson said the number of peer support services had almost doubled in the past few months, so ensuring the success of this newly expanded program has been a priority for them now.

Gibson said Daphne Zencey, a newly hired peer support apprentice, will spend most of her time in the primary care unit at Burlington Outpatient Lakeside Clinic. Most people in distress are reluctant to go for mental health treatment, Gibson said, but they may show up at the primary care office. Zencey’s job is to be a “bridge,” to develop a relationship with veterans and get them involved with others.

“If they do need mental health services, they’ll be more likely to seek them after building a sort of trusting relationship with other vets,” Gibson said.

Zencey also started a class about mindful resilience this month. There were four veterans in the first class. Zencey, a former member of the Coast Guard, said the class touches various aspects of resiliency with a model based on yoga. Veterans can learn ways to remove themselves from a possibly stressful situation by focusing on their breathing or just taking a step back for a few minutes.

According to National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, until September 2017, only half of Vermont veterans have enrolled in the VA Healthcare System. From 2005 to 2016, the increase in the suicide rate among veterans enrolled in the system was 13.7%, while the number of those who don’t use the service was 26%, according to the VA’s suicide report.

Many veterans have stayed away from medical staff or any medication since they were in the service, Gerasimof said, out of fear they could become non-deployable.

Snitkin said Vermont could partner with more organizations or employers to strengthen suicide prevention. It’s important to educate the general population on the risk factors and signs of suicide, including hopelessness and isolation. She said if more people are aware of the warning signs, they are more likely to help someone struggling before the person ends up in a position of asking for help.

Building “Josh’s House”

Four months after her son’s death, Valerie Pallotta started to get tattoos in honor of him. The first piece, on her left arm, includes a black butterfly with red stripes and white dots. She said the butterfly spent hours on her back deck on the week that Josh died.

On her right arm, there’s Josh’s handwriting that says, “Thanks for all your hard work mom. Josh Pallotta,” Valerie said he wrote that in a card to her.

Valerie wears Josh’s dog tags all the time and said she sees signs that make her believe that her son is there, just like the butterfly that stayed on her deck.

“I have to believe in that because if I didn’t, I probably would be with him right now,” she said.

People started to make donations after Josh’s death to give back or support, Valerie said. To use the money appropriately, she and her husband started talking to veterans to understand what would help them and what would have helped their son.

“A lot of them kept saying ‘we just want a place to hang out with other veterans and play video games’,” Valerie said.

She had been studying aromatherapy for post traumatic stress disorder before Josh died, which gave her the idea of combining the wellness piece with the recreation side to build a place for veterans, said Valerie. In 2016, the Josh Pallotta Fund was chartered as a nonprofit organization, run by Josh’s family and friends, including Gubic. The goal is to raise money for building “Josh’s House” in Chittenden County.

Gubic said Josh’s death made them realize veteran suicide is an ongoing issue. If there is a place for veterans to get together and talk about the problems they’ve met when coming home, it may prevent them from hurting themselves.

According to their plan, Josh’s House will include a gym, a game room, a study room and a community kitchen. But Valerie said they found out it would cost them about $1 million to build and operate a place like that when they started to search for locations. So far, they have raised only about $325,000, Valerie said, so they decided to hold off on the vision for a bit.

Nevertheless, they didn’t want to wait to offer the service. Since last fall, the fund has partnered with Concept Move, a local gym based in South Burlington, to provide free personal training for veterans, according to Valerie. About 10 veterans have been using the service.

The fund has spent $8,500 on personal training visits for veterans, Valerie said, and the gym offers the fund a 15% discount on the fee. She also said later this summer or early fall, they are going to start the same program with Orangetheory Fitness’ branch in Burlington.

Valerie said she hopes to help veterans find purpose in their lives after coming back home.

There were more than 900 people at Josh’s funeral, said Valerie. How one suicide can have that much impact on that many people amazed her. She said she runs the fund because she doesn’t want to see another veteran kill himself, especially locally.

“I don’t want this to happen to another mom or dad,” she said.

If you are a veteran in need assistance, or know someone who does, contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or send a text message to 838255. A confidential online chat is also available at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
 

Topics
Mental Health
Peer Support
Suicide
Transition