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A different war: Military families do battle with suicide

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 8:10 p.m. MDT

Leslie Zimmerman gives a small push to her son McKay during a ride with her kids Monday, April 14, 2014, at Discovery Park in Pleasant Grove. Zimmerman, a former combat medic, is struggling with contemplating suicide after serving in the Military.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-day look into solving the problem of suicide. Today a look at the challenges facing military veterans.

SALT LAKE CITY — As an Army combat medic, Leslie Zimmerman spent four years trying to patch up wounded comrades and friends. She was in Korea for a year and then sent to Iraq the day the war began.

She returned home in 2004, and the battles didn't stop. She said she actually wanted to go back to Iraq because she didn't know how to handle day-to-day life without the military.

"It was really, really difficult," Zimmerman said. "I wanted to go back because there I didn’t have to think about anything, because you just do what you’re trained to do, and you don’t have to worry about how you feel because you don’t have time to feel. It’s not part of the job to feel."

She said she couldn't really talk to her husband at the time about anything because she couldn't figure out where she fit into her old life. She was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her thoughts turned to suicide.

"When I got home, it was quiet and calm, and then you have everything left over. It doesn’t just stop. You remember everything," Zimmerman said of Iraq.

Zimmerman said she was lucky to have a regular physician ask her about her mental well-being, and she was set up with a psychologist. She still goes to counseling once a week and spends time with other veterans "who get it."

But many are not so fortunate. Of the 18 Utah soldiers who died in 2013, at least 13 are confirmed suicides, said Ryan Wilcox, a former Utah state legislator.

Newly released numbers by the Pentagon reveal there were 289 suicides among active duty troops in 2013, down from 343 in 2012. The majority were in the Army, with the Pentagon reporting a 25 percent decline in the Navy (59 to 44). The Marines and Air Force were nearly the same year-over-year, dropping by three Marines and two Air Force servicemen.

The drop comes after military suicides steadily increased for about a decade, possibly because of better tracking and U.S. military involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

A National Institute of Mental Health study of 2004 to 2009 showed the rates of deployed soldiers doubled to more than 30 suicide deaths per 100,000. The rates for non-deployed soldiers tripled to about the same rate. The average civilian rate for similar ages and demographics remained at about 19 for every 100,000.

The reported drop in suicides in 2013 indicates more is being done to help service members. But these are still personal struggles impacting American families at an alarming rate.

Leslie Zimmerman found a way through the darkness.

Lessons from Leslie

"I have kids now, so it’s not just about me," Zimmerman said. "There’s things preventing me from committing suicide, but I’m not going to lie that I don’t feel like that sometimes. Some days are better than others, but my kids and my family are enough."

Now 32 and living in Pleasant Grove, Zimmerman says she has been married to a supportive husband for six years, and they have three children, ages 6, 4 and 3.

Reaching out and finding someone to trust and then talking about it is important because it makes it "less of a reality, less plausible," she said. When she hears what she's saying, she realizes what a bad idea suicide is.

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