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Officials grapple with preventing military suicides

Army Maj. Ed Pulido knows what it's like to feel the despair that comes with losing a limb and knowing his military career was over.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Army Maj. Ed Pulido knows what it's like to feel the despair that comes with losing a limb and knowing his military career was over.

Pulido, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost his left leg after his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq, would lie in bed and wonder when the night terrors would end, how he would support his family and whether he would ever feel like himself again.

Pulido's mother sought help for him, and now he is seeking help for others like him.

The retired serviceman is speaking to veterans this week at the third annual suicide prevention conference sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The conference, called "All the Way Home," is focusing on finding ways to prevent military suicides by removing the stigma of seeking mental health counseling and mustering stronger support throughout the community.

Participants, including social workers, therapists, clinicians and military supervisors are sharing ideas about various mental health services, including peer groups, self-help groups, online forums and social media to assist troubled veterans.

VA Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould on Tuesday told the crowd gathered at the conference that the VA is re-branding the national Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline, including changing its name to "crisis" in an attempt to remove the shame sometimes associated with suicide and to encourage reluctant veterans to make a call for help.

"It's to make it easier for veterans to seek services," Gould said in an interview.

"Our models of what it's like to be a soldier is to be strong and have a stiff upper lip. We are trying to communicate to veterans and service members that this is something real warriors do."

Gould said the VA is using social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to reach out to veterans who may be struggling with depression. A new downloadable application that will become available over the next few months measures stress by asking service members to rate the levels of various emotions they are feeling. It then calculates suggestions such as calling a friend, seeking mental health services, or even calling 911 in crisis situations.

Sheri Hall, the wife of Army Maj. Jeff Hall, is speaking at the conference about the impact on the families of active service members and veterans. She said her husband came back after his second deployment in Iraq in 2006 angry and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, but unwilling to seek mental health counseling. Over the next 2½ years, he got progressively worse and talked of committing suicide, she said.

"I kept encouraging him to get help. He would say, 'I have a career. I can't say I'm crazy. I can't do that,'" she said.

Finally, Sheri Hall went to her husband's commander, who found a psychologist who got the Halls into an intensive 3-week treatment program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Hall is now serving at Ft. Riley, in Kansas, where he continues to receive counseling and is doing well, his wife said.

"We have good days and we have bad days," she said. "The difference now is we know what to do."

Both Pulido and the Halls are part of the "Real Warriors" campaign sponsored by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, The campaign features public service announcements by service members who sought psychological treatment and went on to successful military and civilian careers.

Dr. Janet Kemp, director of the VA's suicide prevention program, said that while the VA and the Department of Defense have greatly increased services available to veterans and active service members, they also rely on a huge network of local agencies and support providers across the country.

"We've recognized that we can't do it alone," she said. "It's like the 'it takes a village' concept. It takes a nation to deal with the suicide problem."