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A veteran-to-veteran storytelling project designed to let Miami Valley veterans describe their own experiences, in their own words with a special focus on stories of re-entry into civilian life.

New season of Veterans' Voices: The Challenge of Suicide Prevention

Retired Lt Col and Clinical Social Worker Bill Wall
Retired Lt Col and Clinical Social Worker Bill Wall

Trigger warning: This story talks about suicide

For Veterans' Day, we premiere a new season of our award-winning series Veterans' Voices. Over the next few months, you will hear the stories of people affected by, and working to prevent veteran suicide.

The season premiere features Veterans' Voices lead producer Seth Gordon in conversation with retired Lieutenant Colonel and clinical social worker William (Bill Wall). Wall has been a mental health professional in the military since the end of the Vietnam War. He has a range of experience: working as both a combat stress team commander and later starting a specialized clinic at the VA for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity)

Bill Wall: My name is William Wall. I go by Bill for the most part.

You do all the work you can do to keep people safe in a war zone. And then we get home. And now here people are dying from something that it's not so much mysterious, but we aren't able to stop it.

I'll give you an example. I had veterans that I saw at the V.A. and asked them the question about if they were having suicidal thoughts or if they felt like that was something that they were going to do, would they call me? Because I'd give them my phone number, they'd have my email, they know where I work every day and they're welcome just to walk in—we had a walk-in clinic.

Several of them looked at me kind of puzzled, and said "No."

And I said, "Well, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you let me know"?

And they said, "Well, you would talk me out of it."

"How does that make sense"? I said.

"Well, when I'm in that much pain, I don't want to be talked out of it. "

That's very insightful to me that a person would want not to lose control of their ability to manage their pain. And that's kind of a tricky dynamic because those things happen when you're by yourself. Folks don't really kill themselves out in public. They do it alone.

So when I'm teaching about suicide, I tell the story about if you told me that and I thought you were really at risk and I couldn't get you to stay in the hospital, I'd tell you, you just got to come home with me because I'm not going to leave you alone.

Don't leave anybody behind. Well, that truly applies as it relates to suicide kind of intervention. If somebody is there, you need to be with me until it clears, because we know that it ebbs and flows. It kind of gets intense at different times and less intense. And so you need that human contact and caring right then and others will, despite having that much social support around them still die from suicide.

Seth Gordon: So I come back after deployment, I get out of the military, I've got chronic pain. And then to cope with that, you're medicated often or you're not medicated and you're self-medicating. Right? So there's a lot of alcoholism. Of course, all of those things together place you if you're in any kind of direct relationship with a spouse, kids, family, parents, if you're struggling to care for yourself, partly because it's difficult, all of those things are hard and it's a stressor on everybody else. All of those are co-morbid. You can easily see how one feeds the other.

Bill: Sure.

Seth: I have a pain management issue then I develop an addiction, that's one path. Or, I don't do that, but it's difficult for me to manage my pain because I have side effects from my pills.

Everybody's having to put more time and energy into my presence, to my issues, whatever they are. And this is from a population that's trained to be the hero.

Bill: I think about being stoic, being self-sufficient, being independent, yet part of a team. I think those kinds of certainly values and things are there. And just that self-belief when you're standing tall at the end of basic training or you're standing in a formation wherever you're assigned, you feel that it's almost like 180 degrees different when you're injured and now you're a patient who needs a caregiver. I mean, that's difficult for anyone. But I think for a lot of military folks, it's even more significant.

Seth: What would you tell veterans? Somebody listening to this, what would you tell them if they're struggling with suicide?

Bill: Talk to somebody close to you first. Let them know what's happening. Find a way into the stream of care. Even if it's just to set up an appointment and it might be a month out, hang on to that appointment, but then do the things in between. But you can't do it alone. You have to work with somebody. And sometimes with more than one. But you have to have a trusted other. So if it's a spouse, if it's a best friend, let them know. And if they ask the question, "Are you having suicidal thoughts"? And you are, say yes. Don't say no and get into the stream of care. It's very robust, but you have to get into that stream.

Veterans' Voices is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO. Support for the series comes from Wright-Patt Credit Union and the Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. Veterans and their loved ones can also call 800-273-8255 or text 838255 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

Seth Gordon, Ph.D., is the director of the Veteran and Military Center at Wright State University and a Community Voices producer. Seth has worked with hundreds of student veterans through the VMC and works with other veteran support organizations in the region and nationally. He is a graduate of Antioch College and earned his doctorate in Educational Policy and Leadership from The Ohio State University in 2013. A native to Yellow Springs, Ohio, he has been active with WYSO Public Radio since 2007.