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Isolation among leading factors when troops take their lives

NEWBERRY, Mass. (BP) — Kimberly Ruocco never received the phone call that so many military families fear, particularly during war times. Her husband, Maj. John Ruocco, served multiple tours of duty as a Top Gun Marine Cobra helicopter pilot, flying as many as 75 missions on one deployment in Iraq. He always came home.

Maj. Ruocco graduated number one in flight school before the Marines assigned him to a North Carolina base. The young Ruoccos started their family while settling into military life. During that time, the military suffered multiple Cobra mishaps, and Maj. Ruocco lost eight colleagues. Their young family also faced three evacuations due to hurricanes. Kimberly describes that time as having “a lot of stressors, a lot of loss, a lot of trauma.”

The loss of colleagues in the mid-1990s triggered her husband’s first major depression, Kimberly said. Her first inclination was to protect him, knowing that his struggle could cost him his career.

“I had watched him work so hard to get where he was,” she said.

With no apparent outlet for assistance, Kimberly said her husband “willed and prayed himself through the depression.” The Marine thought he had a personal weakness and vowed not to let it happen again.

Maj. Ruocco’s career continued 10 more years and included a Pentagon assignment. The couple had begun talking about leaving the Marine Corps. Then 9/11 happened.

“This is going to change everything for us,” Kimberly remembered her husband saying.

By Thanksgiving 2004, Maj. Ruocco was stateside following another deployment. A major airline had turned him down for a job. The squadron had moved from Pennsylvania, near his Massachusetts home, to California. The depression and anxiety came back.

The holidays were miserable before Maj. Ruocco went to California to join his squadron. On Super Bowl Sunday in February 2005 after Ruocco’s favorite team, the New England Patriots had won, Kimberly called her husband. He had stayed alone in his hotel room and didn’t watch the game.

“That’s when I really knew it was the final straw,” Kimberly said. “He was that sick or upset that if he couldn’t watch the game he loved so much that he had to get help no matter what.”

Kimberly followed her instincts and caught an overnight flight from Boston to California. Upon landing, she immediately started calling military base clinics as her husband had promised he would take himself to an emergency room. There was no record of his admission.

Kimberly rented a car and drove to his hotel, only to find bedlam. The parking lot was full of Marine Corps vehicles. The front-desk clerk refused to assist and even turned his back on her. But a house cleaner took Kimberly, who was bawling, toward her husband’s room.

“A Marine was coming out of his room, and he was crying,” Kimberly recalled. “I just fell to the ground. He didn’t have to say a word to me. I knew immediately.”

Maj. John Ruocco had committed suicide, leaving behind Kimberly with their two sons.

Losing a loved one always hurts when a soldier is fighting for a patriotic cause. But suicide cuts deep and leaves wounds infected by confusion.

How did this happen? Why? Couldn’t someone see this coming?

Each branch of the U.S. military shares the confusion of surviving family members as the rate of suicides has slowly but steadily increased in recent years. As many as 349 self-inflicted deaths occurred last year among active-duty military. But the challenge doesn’t exist just among current military personnel.

An estimated 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide each day. In the 1960s and early ’70s, many Americans revolted against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, particularly as the American death count rose.

Compared to the 58,000 soldiers killed during the Vietnam War, “more than 150,000 [veterans] have died by their own hands,” said retired Chaplain (Major General) Doug Carver of Charlotte, N.C.

Yet no one is marching in protest of these lost lives.

When Carver retired as a two-star general, he was the 22nd U.S. Army chief of chaplaincy. Today, as executive director of the North American Mission Board’s chaplaincy services, which endorses Southern Baptist chaplains in the military and other areas of service, his concern continues to grow over this confusing dilemma.

“Suicide in the military is a critical incident because of the great concern we have for life in the military,” Carver said. The Army formed a suicide prevention task force to explore causes of military suicides and to reduce the rates. Several indicators emerged, including failed relationships, fear of public shame, and isolation.

“You may have 300 friends in your social network, but who do you call at 2 a.m.?” Carver asked. “Our troops are isolated because they have excruciating pain from the trauma of war. They don’t know how to verbalize what they need.”

When Keith Poole retired after 24 years in the Army, he didn’t realize his need for help. But a friend insisted that he spend some time at “the ranch” near Vail, Colo., with a ministry called Operation Restored Warrior.

“I would have barely been described a Christian before I went,” Poole said. “Now I’m pastoring a church.”

Poole serves Highland Baptist Church on Brindlee Mountain near Huntsville, Ala., as their bivocational pastor. His secular employment is as an assistant professor of tactics for the Department of Army at the Command and General Staff College in Red Stone Arsenal, Ala.

Poole described Operation Restored Warrior as a ministry to active-duty military and veterans that engages in “prayer and action — it’s one group that excels at both” for those with suicidal thoughts and actions and those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

“The military is not approaching this epidemic weighing the spiritual side of the fight,” Poole said. “If it was any other form of warfare, we would win. We don’t lose at war. We are obviously not winning,” he said of the military suicide rate.

With America’s recent engagement in two wars, the conclusion many observers had drawn was that the suicide-rate increase was deployment-related. However, a peer-reviewed study published in the August 2013 Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that deployment-related factors were not “associated with increased suicide risks.”

“Commanders are struggling,” said Chaplain (Col.) Gordon Groseclose, who serves as the Army’s Western Regional Medical Command chaplain in Washington state. “These are soldiers that they deeply love.

“We lose one soldier and we lose a part or our heart and our souls. They are our precious resources.”

As a leader to chaplains serving multiple medical facilities, Groseclose monitors the military’s research and progress toward understanding and mitigating suicide. With more than 30 years of military chaplaincy service, he sees three factors that could address this crisis. Suicide risk decreases when people have a sense of belonging, feel useful and know how to deal with pain.

Local churches could become key to suicide mitigation, Groseclose said.

“The body of Christ is where people can be useful,” he said. “The church has to be a hospital for broken lives.”

Groseclose, a Southern Baptist-endorsed chaplain, points to research among military personnel who tried to hurt themselves but were not successful. The results found a common reason — “I wanted to stop the pain.” Consequently, Groseclose and Carver would like to de-stigmatize mental illness, particularly depression, which often results in hurt or broken lives and sometimes suicide.

Chaplain (Col.) Ken Stice is director of operations for the office of the Army chief of chaplains at the Pentagon. With 27 years of active duty as a Southern Baptist-endorsed chaplain, he is close to Army leaders who are championing a response to the challenge. The Army’s focus is on resiliency, coping skills and support systems, Stice said, referencing such programs as the Army’s new Ready and Resilient Campaign and its Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Initiative.

“Somebody has to know you well enough to know when you are hurting,” Stice said. “The only thing that will save a human life is a human relationship.”

Poole urged Southern Baptists “to research this military suicide issue, become engaged, seek out the soldiers and veterans within your church for insight and, above all, fervently pray that our nation will overcome this horrendous onslaught against our nation’s warriors. We have a spiritual warfare battle on our hands; it is time to enlist the expertise of spiritual warriors to join in the fight — and that is us!”

Kimberly Ruocco, meanwhile, has turned her family’s tragedy into a life mission. Having joined the staff of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), she has built a database of more than 4,000 surviving families, plus a comprehensive support program.

And she counts the toll of suicide on military chaplains.

“They are carrying a lot on their backs. They are the place where men and women in the military are asked to go whenever they are in a crisis. They are walking a tight rope,” Ruocco said, between the confidentiality they must provide and the care they must give whenever the possibility of suicide looms.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist in Cumming, Ga., and bivocational pastor of Sugarloaf International Fellowship in Suwanee, Ga., (www.sifsuwanee.com). Baptist Press editor Art Toalston contributed to this article. A national suicide crisis line is available for civilians and military families at 1-800-273-8255. Information about Operation Restored Warrior is available at www.operationrestoredwarrior.org. TAPS can be reached by calling 1-800-959-82778 or visiting www.taps.org. Opinions expressed by Keith Poole are his and do not reflect an official position of the Defense Department, Department of the Army or the Command and General Staff College (CGSC). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Jim Burton