Local veterans share struggles with suicide

February 24, 2023

For residents and visitors to Fountain Hills, strolling around Fountain Park is a gratifying activity. For Sgt. Mike Schultz, it’s a reminder of things seen and unseen; booby traps around each corner and Viet Cong lurking behind the olive trees and firestick plants, ready to pounce at any moment.

“I’m afraid of getting ambushed,” Mike said. “Instead of enjoying nature, I’m looking for tripwires and dreaming about other things.”

Mike suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that many veterans experience as a result of their time in the military.

A Sergeant in the highly esteemed U.S. First Calvary and a grunt in the Vietnam War, Mike’s machete was an extension of his body, perpetually slashing through dense undergrowth as he trudged for miles through deep, boot-sucking mud.

“There was just a daily grind of cutting through the jungle…walking down trails you don’t want to walk down,” he said. “When somebody gets shot or we get [ambushed], you put your friends in a poncho like a dead piece of meat.”

Memories of burying his friends and the things he witnessed in Vietnam, Mike relives during the night when the noise of the TV helps him drift to sleep. Prescription medication worked for a time, Mike said, but it affected his work as a long-haul truck driver, a career he held for 42 years.

“I thought about [suicide], just had never done it,” Mike said. “Trucking was good to me. I have a nice life and I’ve got a great wife.”

Suicide among young veterans 

The rate of suicide among veterans is a major concern, clocking in at 57.3% higher than non-veteran U.S. adults, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2022). The VA tallied 16.8 veteran suicides per day in 2020, the most recent year that data is available.

From 2001 to 2020, the unadjusted suicide rate among veterans 75 and older increased by 21.2%. For veterans ages 55 to 74, suicides increased by 58.2% and for veterans ages 35 to 54, suicides increase by 12.9%. For the youngest veteran age group (18 to 34), the suicide rate skyrocketed by 95.3%.

“The Afghan/Iraq veterans go and they’ve served for a year or two years and they come back and adjust to peaceful life at home, but in the back of their mind, they know they’re going to deploy again,” American Legion Post 58 Commander John Schwab said. “This back and forth and everything, I think is harder on the young veterans.”

Spending months at a time remaining undetected in a Navy submarine, Schwab recalled the mental toll of not knowing if his family was safe, counting down the days when he could return home.

“It’s trained into you that you’re self-sufficient, you know, ‘You don’t need any outside help. You’re going to be isolated so suck it up and get out there,’” Schwab said.

Life without sight

Sergeant Alan Roberts is a local Vietnam veteran and the current Post 58 finance chair. In 1969, he enlisted in the Army and spent 11 months of tour duty three kilometers from the Vietnam-Cambodian border.

As a radio operator attached to a Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) unit, Alan’s radio antenna was the tallest object in a compound surrounded by concertina wire and claymore mines, making it an easy target for flying mortar rounds.

“I heard this (whistling) and I looked up and there was a mortar round coming in and I thought it was going to land right on top of me,” Alan said. “I hit the dirt as flat as I could and this thing hit probably five feet to my right.”

Alan survived the attack unscathed, but the following day, he had two black eyes and noticed flashes of light. After returning home from duty, Alan was diagnosed with two retinal tears which, after multiple unsuccessful surgeries, developed into retinal detachments.

While on a 10-day cruise ship to Alaska in June of 2015, Alan saw the same, familiar flashes of light he saw in Vietnam, losing vision in his left eye. In June 2020, Alan lost vision in his right eye, causing him to become legally blind.

“You can’t fly anymore, you can’t drive a car, you can’t read a book, you can’t watch TV. I couldn’t play catch with my grandson and that’s all I thought about was all the things I couldn’t do,” Alan said. “I really went into a dark, dark hole…I have to be honest with you, I was suicidal.”

During the pandemic, Alan and his wife, Kay, met with a psychiatrist to help them work through their new life without Alan’s sight. In one of their regular phone sessions, the psychiatrist asked Alan if he’d ever thought about suicide, to which Alan responded, “Every day.”

“I immediately just fell apart because I really never, ever suspected it,” Kay said. “I knew he’s depressed, so am I, you know, because I’m going through a certain amount of mourning and trying to put on the brave face, but also my husband’s lost all of his ability to help me or to do anything…you lose some of your identity because you’re not the wife anymore, you’re the caretaker.”

According to Alan, talking with a psychiatrist he found through the VA was tremendously helpful, and the support from his wife Kay has been invaluable.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the love of my wife, Kay, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of that hole,” Alan said.

For Mike Schultz, waking up in the middle of the night and his inability to fully communicate his feelings takes a toll on his wife of 20 years.

“It’s hard on my wife,” he said. “I love my wife and I communicate with her, but I sit in a stare a lot and it just never goes away.”

While driving cross-country, Mike decided to take a short detour to Dayton, Ohio, to visit Don Crutcher, an old friend and Mike’s radio telephone operator in Vietnam.

Don had previously visited Mike unannounced, but Mike was on the road, missing him by a week.

Hoping to finally catch up with his friend, Mike found Don’s address and made the trip to Dayton. Don’s mother met Mike at the door and shared a glass of water. She told him her son had committed suicide after struggling with PTSD.

“I still see Don in my mind,” Mike said. “I live it every day.”

For Mike and Alan, their spouses have been their guardian angels who helped them through the darkest of times. Being around other veterans who have similar experiences, Mike and Alan say is also worthwhile. But for countless veterans, loneliness and isolation have been found to be leading causes of suicide, according to research done by the VA, noting many veterans may not want to burden their loved ones with their problems.

“I think for a lot of folks, they felt mental health challenges for the first time during the pandemic,” said Beth Brady of Solari Crisis Response in Arizona. “It really opened people’s eyes to know it can impact anyone at any time, of any age, status, ethnicity.

“And so that, coupled with the launch of [the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline] 988, I think we’re at the precipice of conversations starting to change, which is going to help reduce stigma over time.”

The VA responds

Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, age and sex-adjusted suicide rates among veterans fell 4.8% from 2019 to 2020, which the VA attributes in part to “telemental health suicide prevention services” brought into the homes of veterans.

In response to the veteran suicide epidemic, the VA expanded its suicide prevention services last month by offering to pay for all emergency mental health care services for veterans.

According to a press release by the VA, veterans in acute suicidal crises can go to any VA or non-VA healthcare facility for emergency service at no cost.

The service includes 30 days for inpatient or crisis residential care and 90 days for outpatient care. As a bonus, veterans do not need to be enrolled in the VA system to use this benefit.

“I still talk to a psychiatrist today to make sure I’m doing okay,” Alan said, who finds connecting with his counselor and morning walks with his dog to be instrumental in keeping his mind healthy.

After years of improvement, Mike is finally able to stroll around the Fountain. He along with a handful of other veterans spent time in a mental health clinic for their PTSD.

“It made me more aware of what was going on with my mind,” Mike said.

For veterans who are burdened with feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression or hopelessness, those who have been through the darkest times agree the worst thing to do is sit silently, suffering by themselves.

“Suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem,” Alan said. “Life’s a bumpy route. You never know what hand God’s gonna deal you the next day. He dealt me a pretty crappy hand, but I’m dealing with it the best I can and I’m fine now. I’m way better than I was a couple years ago and it was a lot of thanks to the VA and the support that I got through them.”

For veterans in crisis or concerned about one, contact Arizona’s Solari Crisis Response Network at 844-534-4673 or call the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988, then press 1. You can also chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/chat or text 838255. Enrollment in VA benefits or health care is not required to connect.

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