Montana has among the nation’s highest concentration of veterans — at the same time that the U.S is experiencing a dangerously high level of veteran suicides. That combination of factors alone should serve as a rallying cry for Montanans, especially as the pandemic grinds on and increases the isolation and stressors felt by many.
The statistics are deeply worrisome. Montana “has been hit probably harder than any other state in the country when it comes to veterans taking their lives by suicide,” said Robert Wilkie, the Trump administration’s secretary of veteran’s affairs, during a visit to the state.
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs show that the state had a veteran suicide annual rate of 57 per 100,000, nearly double the national rate of 31 per 100,000.
The state’s leaders and the federal government have teamed up to prioritize approaches that reach rural veterans. These include establishing mini clinics inside supermarkets, which are often a main gathering point in rural communities. And in 2021, the VA is opening a new 52,000-square-foot clinic in Missoula and another facility in the near future in Kalispell.
“Montana is ground zero, it’s the test bed for that,” Wilke said of efforts to reach rural veterans.
This is much needed. But what about those vets who don’t raise their hands, who are suffering in silence, whose physical or psychological injuries have left them perilously disconnected from others? How to reach them, these men and women who are most vulnerable and may not seek out services?
Connecting with these people before they despair is paramount. That is why the Troops First Foundation and its partners in the military community are calling on veterans to share a sense of responsibility for those with whom they have served and to recognize the urgent need to connect.
Our ask is simple: If you live in Montana and are active duty or a veteran, reach out and connect with current and former battle buddies and let them know you care. In short, make a call, take a call and have an honest conversation. With research showing that active duty service members and vets in need of support often don’t seek help on their own, a call could save a life. The Foundation’s effort, known as “Warrior Call,” is seeking to have at least 50,000 current service members and vets make a phone call and connect with another by the end of the year.
Time is of the essence to make these connections. Invisible wounds linked to an underlying and undiagnosed traumatic brain injury can mirror many mental health conditions. At the same time, vets can be burdened with moral injury from their experiences. The traumas can impact and erode a person’s sense of hope, leading them to disconnect from friends and family and cause some to see suicide as the only way to relieve their pain.
In a sobering metric, more U.S. vets have died by suicide in the last 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam. The suicide rate nationally for veterans is at least 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex.
“Suicide among veterans remain disproportionately high, despite continued boosts to VA funding and efforts by Congress and the White House to curb the crisis,” Stars and Stripes reports.
Warrior Call is a movement that every state nation should embrace, but especially Montana with its high concentration of veterans.
"At this time of additional stress, we want to make certain that the nation's warriors, whether veterans or active duty, connect and check in with one another,” said Leroy Petry, a 2011 recipient of the Medal of Honor and co-chair of Warrior Call. “All it takes is a simple call to make a huge, life-changing difference.”
Frank Larkin is co-chair of the Warrior Call initiative (warriorcall.org), a former Navy SEAL, 40th U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms and father of a Navy SEAL son who committed suicide.