The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to count the number of veteran deaths by suicide at about 20 a day.
The number is probably higher because suicides are counted differently in many states and it is not uncommon for many deaths to be classified as drug overdoses without making a connection to military service.
Even so, that amounts to 7,300 acknowledged suicides a year. The research is inconclusive and the data is complex. The facts are confounding. And the toll is measured in human anguish, for the surviving loved ones and the suddenly departed.
In the active military, approximately half the suicides occur with troops — mostly young people — who have never deployed to a combat zone. Research goes into issues related to family histories, history of drug use, many factors.
Still, the elements for veterans transitioning from the military and even those who served in the long ago combat of Vietnam, Korea and World War II, post traumatic stress disorder counts as a major factor in suicide.
One name that defined veterans in battle against despair was Clay Hunt, the 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in Fallujah, Iraq, and later in Afghanistan.
Awarded the Purple Heart and initially rated at the VA’s estimate of 30% disability from PTSD, he was honorably discharged from the Corps in 2009.
He tried to transition from scout sniper to society. He became one of the original members of Team Rubicon, a veterans nonprofit who move into disaster areas to do humanitarian work. He joined the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America “storming the Hill” initiatives in Washington to press for veteran-supportive legislation.
Five weeks after Hunt killed himself in 2011, his 18-month appeal for a VA disability rating for PTSD came in at 100%.
His tragic end became a rallying cry for returned war veterans and it resulted in ground-breaking legislation, the Clay Hunt Act, unanimously approved in both houses of Congress and signed into law in 2015 by President Obama.
With unanimous bipartisan support, the Clay Hunt Act approved a large expansion of VA mental health resources. It came too late to help Hunt, but his cause only became larger because of his life, his difficult service and his premature death.
Team Rubicon’s annual “Run As One” 5K, run in April every year, is a way of extending Hunt’s legacy, another Marine combat veteran of Iraq shared with Antelope Valley veterans on Tuesday.
Krishna America Flores, of Palmdale, served as a Marine Corps corporal up in the machine gun turret of an up-armored Humvee in Iraq. Shifting from transportation support, “Motor-T,” to the MPs, she climbed up on the guns. She also came home with her own load of war-related traumas, heavier than a ruck sack and body armor.
These days, former Cpl. Flores works the community outreach beat for the Vet Center, a VA counseling center in Palmdale for veterans who have served in combat or high-hazard zones.
The Marine veteran is candid about her own trauma and how it occurred and she is willing to share that in a room full of veterans at Coffee4Vets. Many of them are older, of the Vietnam War Era, and most are men.
Women who served in the armed forces also attend and the vets in the room span all eras of American conflict from World War II to the present wars we have been fighting for nearly 18 years. When Flores speaks, they listen.
About Clay Hunt’s legacy, she said, “It’s called the ‘Run As One,’ because we should all be one, together. Clay Hunt took his own life and the Run was for him.”
She recounted her own battle against despair, that same fight that is claiming 20 lives a day.
Coming home from Iraq, she recounted, “I was about to not be here ... I didn’t come home from war to not be here.”
Her appeal is straightforward to veterans of any era of service who are in such distress that they are hearing from the siren call of suicide as relief.
“You have these wounds and the wounds are going to be here,” she said. “But you can learn to live with them. The hardest part is accepting that something is wrong.”
Flores is part of a generation of veterans who are engaged in the challenge to make the VA better and to be the guardians of keeping the promise.
“If you have questions, please come to the Vet Center,” she said. “You can manage an incredible amount of life stuff. I am evidence of it.”
The VA Vet Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and the first Saturday. It’s located at 38925 Trade Center Drive in Palmdale, 661-267-1026.
Services are for veterans who served in combat or hazard zones or were impacted by military sexual trauma. Setting an appointment can take a couple of weeks, but information can be obtained on site in a veteran-friendly atmosphere. If your need is urgent, call the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press “1.”
Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker who deployed to Iraq in 2003-04 with National Guard troops from the Antelope Valley, when he served as editor of the Valley Press. Employed by High Desert Medical Group, he works on veterans, mental health, and issues of community need.