How prevalent is suicide in the Vt. Guard? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

How prevalent is suicide in the Vt. Guard?

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BARTON, Vt. -

"We will never, ever, ever forget our son," Lynda Leonard said.

Lynda knew early on her son would one day serve his country.

"Ryan was 3-years-old when he looked at me and he said, 'Mommy, know now when I grow up I'm going to be a serviceman and you have to like it,'" Lynda said.

Sgt. Ryan Leonard fulfilled that dream after high school. He joined the Vermont National Guard, deploying twice to Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Army gunner's homecoming was hard.

"He said, 'Mom, I just can't tell you.' And you could see the hurt in his eyes at having to hurt somebody else," Lynda said.

The father of six withdrew from his family, growing increasingly angry and distant. Ryan's parents say he had sought treatment at the VA, but didn't like the way the medications made him feel. He wanted to try a PTSD treatment center in Boston, but never made it. On Sept. 17, 2012, the 29-year-old shot himself at home.

"There's always that blank spot left in your heart and your mind," dad Bruce Leonard said. "The why. What went wrong?"

"We have had suicides within the Vermont National Guard, just as we've had in society. One is too many," Maj. Gen. Steven Cray said.

In the last decade, seven soldiers and one airman within the Vermont National Guard have died by suicide.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Is the Guard doing enough to help these returning service members or does more need to be done?

Maj. Gen. Steven Cray: Well, I think we can always improve. Absolutely.

Vermont's adjutant general says the National Guard and the Department of Defense continue to revise mental health training, build stronger partnerships with medical and counseling professionals, while expanding resources and increasing suicide awareness within its ranks.

"Our approach is a comprehensive holistic approach. We try to deal with the underlying stressors that would lead to suicide," said Col. Peter Firkey, the personnel director at the Vermont Army National Guard.

Each year soldiers undergo a health assessment, including an online mental health survey designed to highlight red flags.

"Do they always report honestly? I'm sure they don't. I'm sure there's people who try not to. But there are other indicators that the professionals can look at when they are doing the comprehensive physical assessment," Firkey said.

"We promote a culture of help-seeking behavior within the Guard," said Capt. Justin Quiet, a suicide prevention and resilience coordinator.

Quiet works with a staff of 35 trainers and 100 training assistants to provide soldiers with coping and stress management skills. The Vermont Guard employs another 60 people for suicide intervention, helping triage those in crisis.

"Everybody who comes back from combat has to really readjust," said Brooke Lockwood-Cole, the director of psychological health.

Nationally, the Guard experienced an uptick in suicides in 2009 and created a psychological health program in each state, employing civilian mental health professionals, like Lockwood-Cole, to help.

"The Vermont National Guard actually does not provide treatment, per se, but we do provide crisis intervention, clinical assessment and referral, as well as case management and continuity of care," Lockwood-Cole said.

She says the warning signs to watch out for include: excessive drinking, substance abuse, agitation, anger, sleeplessness, inability to communicate and hyper vigilance. She says the sooner loved ones or battle buddies intervene, the better the outcome.

Sadly, that was not the case for Ryan's family.

"All we have left is pictures and a flag," Lynda Leonard said.

Ryan's parents say while the Guard supported their son's wife and kids, they felt cast aside by the military.

"I raised that soldier for this country and I supported that child, that was an adult, yes, but he was still my child and I feel that there still needs to be support even for the parents of these kids," Lynda said.

The Leonards say what limited income they have goes to pay for private grief counseling. And it's been a costly struggle.

"If we can save one from contemplating suicide then this will have been worth it because that's one family who won't go through what we've been through," Lynda said.

The Vermont National Guard says of its members who suffer behavioral issues like PTSD, about 20 percent are getting treatment. But that number could be higher if they are seeking out alternative medicines or health care on their own.

PTSD and suicide prevention resources available to military members:

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