Erin Trieb for NBC News
Monica Velez, pictured in Austin, Texas, had two brothers, Jose “Freddy” Velez and Andrew Velez, both of whom served the U.S. military and both are now dead — Freddy was killed in action in Iraq, and Andrew took his own life.
By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor
Before Army Spc. Andrew Velez left Texas for the final time, he asked his fragile sister to write him a promise – a vow he could carry with him to Afghanistan.
Monica Velez knew she owed him that much. In the horrid weeks after each had lost their beloved brother, Freddy Velez, to enemy fire in Iraq, Monica tried to end her life with pills and alcohol. Now, she put pen to paper: “I will not hurt myself. I will not do anything crazy. I know that Andrew loves me. I know that Freddy loved me.” Andrew folded her note and slipped it into his pocket.
“Don’t break your word to me,” he told her before heading back to war.
Seven months later, Andrew, 22, sat alone in an Army office at a base in Afghanistan. He put a gun to his head and committed suicide. Back in Texas, word reached Monica Velez who, once again, found herself in a dangerous place. Only now, she was alone. Days of alcohol and anti-depressants. Nights of dark thoughts: “It would just be better if I was gone.”
‘The storm’ is coming
As the U.S. military suicide rate soared to record heights during 2012, the families of service members say they, too, are witnessing a silent wave of self-harm occurring within their civilian ranks: spouses, children, parents and siblings.
Some suicides and suicide attempts — like those that ravaged the Velez family — are spurred by combat losses.
Others may be triggered by exhaustion and despair: As some veterans return debilitated by anxiety, many spouses realize it’s now up to them — and will be for decades — to hold the family together.
Specific figures are lacking as no agency tracks civilian suicides within military families.
However, Kristina Kaufmann, a long-time Army wife, knows of three other Army wives, all friends, who took their lives in recent years.
Courtesy Kristina Kaufmann
“When you know that you are the anchor — and if you go down, the family’s going down — the problem is that you can only do that for so long,” said Kristina Kaufmann.
One was Faye Vick, described by Kaufmann as “the perfect picture of an Army wife — pretty, nice, always with a smile.” Vick and her family lived around the corner from Kaufmann and near Fort Bragg, N.C. In 2006, when Kaufmann’s husband was in Afghanistan and Vick’s husband was deployed overseas, the 39-year-old mother placed herself, her infant and her 2-year-old son in a car inside a closed garage and started the engine, asphyxiating all three with carbon monoxide, according to Kaufmann and to local news reports at the time.
“And I know of too many others through the grapevine,” said Kaufmann, executive director of Code of Support, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit that seeks to bridge the gap between civilians and military America.
“When you know that you are the anchor — and if you go down, the family’s going down — the problem is that you can only do that for so long,” said Kaufmann. “That population (of spouses) is at the most risk. Because the storm is going to happen when everybody comes home. That’s where we are, unfortunately, going to see an uptick in lots of negative outcomes, including suicide, including suicide among the spouses.”
On Jan. 14, Department of Defense officials acknowledged that during 2012, service members committed suicide at a record pace as more than 349 people took their own lives across the four branches. The military suicide rate is slightly lower than that of the general public. However, one active-duty member died by suicide every 25 hours last year.
The Army sustained the heaviest branch toll at 182 suicides, which — as NBC News reported Jan. 3 — meant that soldier suicides outpaced combat deaths for the first time, according to Pentagon officials.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta informed Congress last July that American armed forces are in the grip of a suicide “epidemic.”
One of the darkest undercurrents of the glaring statistics is that one suicide in a family boosts future suicide risks for everyone else inside the home. They can be contagious, say experts like Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area and the founder of Give an Hour, which develops networks of mental-health volunteers who respond to both acute and chronic situations.
Numerous researchers have explored the so-called contagion effect of suicides within families and “there’s no question the data supports there’s at least a doubling of risk,” among surviving family members, said Dr. Alan L. Berman, Ph.D., executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. The organization strives to better understand and prevent suicide.
“It’s understood that risk, in part, is biological,” Berman said, given that disorders like depression have a genetic component.
“But it’s also based on social modeling behavior: The suicide of a parent presents a model (for children in that family) of how to deal with problems, and that’s no less true for a spouse.”
Added Van Dahlen: “The closer that family member is to you, the greater risk you’re at. We believe, psychologically, it opens the possibility and ends a taboo.”
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