Franklin James Cook

TAPS Reaches Out To Military Families Grieving after Suicide

In Grief on May 25, 2009 at 10:55 pm
Connie Scott displays a picture her son, Brian Williams, who died by suicide when he was 20 years old. (Sarah L. Voisin, The Washington Post)

Connie Scott displays a picture of her son, Brian Williams, who died by suicide when he was 20 years old. (Sarah L. Voisin, The Washington Post)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Never before has suicide by U.S. military personnel and veterans caught the nation’s attention as it has since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thankfully, the plight of the families left behind after a loss by suicide is also getting some much-needed attention, as was evidenced during the Memorial Day weekend at the National Military Survivor Seminar put on by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The seminar was covered for the Washington Post by reporter Steve Vogel.

Mirroring a rise in suicides in the military, many of those participating in the 15th annual TAPS seminar are families of service members who took their own lives.

“A third of the calls we’re getting now are from families with suicides,” said Bonnie Carroll, executive director of TAPS.

Suicides in the Army, already at a record rate in 2008, surpassed the number of combat deaths for the month of January. As of the end of April, the Army had lost 64 active-duty soldiers to likely suicides.

Several survivors at the seminar were struggling–even as they view their loved ones as having died in the service of their country–with the stigma related to a death by suicide.

Mary Clare Lindberg’s son, Army Sgt. Benjamin Jon Miller, was home in Minnesota on leave from Iraq in June when he shot and killed himself. In March, Lindberg made a pilgrimage to Fort Campbell, Ky., to visit the post where her son served with the 101st Airborne Division. While it was comforting to meet with the soldiers with whom her son had served, Lindberg was upset when she saw the unit memorial. The names of two soldiers from her son’s brigade who were killed in combat were on the memorial, but Ben Miller’s name was not.

“Because my son was a suicide home on leave, his name was not on the memorial wall at Fort Campbell, and that’s just not right,” said Lindberg, who said her son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in Iraq.

Crying as she spoke Friday, Lindberg was comforted by several other women who had lost sons or husbands in the military to suicide.

“Our loved ones are casualties of the war, but they are not remembered,” said Connie Scott, whose son, Pvt. 1st Class Brian M. Williams, also killed himself while home on leave from Iraq.

In an Army Times article earlier this year, staff writer Karen Jowers reported on how TAPS is reaching out to suicide survivors, using the approaches it has always used with families who lose a loved one in war.

“TAPS has seen a tragic increase in families whose loved ones lost their very personal battles,” said Bonnie Carroll, the group’s founder … “We embrace these families with a wide array of programs offering comfort and care …”

TAPS offers peer-based support, crisis care, casualty casework assistance, and grief and trauma resources, all free. Unlike most programs offered through the military, TAPS provides ongoing help to anyone grieving the death of a loved one in the military, regardless of the relationship to the deceased, where they live, or the circumstances of the death.

TAPS can also help connect service members, families and others to free, confidential … counseling through partnerships with the Veterans Affairs Department’s Vet Centers, Give An Hour, and the Association of Death Education and Counseling.

During the past 40 years, peer-led support groups across America have become a mainstay of the grief services available to people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The experience of those groups shows that, for many, there is no better help available than spending time with others who have also suffered the death of a loved one by suicide. In a similar fashion, it looks as if TAPS is using its experience with peer outreach to help military families who are bereaved by suicide.

“It’s brought me back to square one,” said [Kim] Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Corps Reserve Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, Calif., three months after returning from Iraq. “I’m exhausted with the subject of suicide, but I can’t rest because there’s too much to be done.”

Ruocco and another widow of a Marine suicide, Carla Stumpf-Patton, have begun coordinating TAPS’ nationwide peer support group program specifically for survivors of suicide.

The TAPS 24-hour crisis line is 800-959-TAPS (8277).

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