A captain in a Kansas National Guard brigade that experienced several suicides in six months said she has submitted a letter of resignation after concerns about the issue weren't taken seriously enough by leadership.
The National Guard has a higher suicide rate than other branches of the military, including active-duty soldiers, a report from the Department of Defense said. However, the Kansas National Guard has a lower rate than guards in many other states, said Maj. Jason Davee.
Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli said the Kansas National Guard has had nine suicides in the past five years, three of which were in the past 18 months.
Additionally, a civilian who worked in the guard's behavioral health department died by suicide last summer, and a man who had just been discharged died earlier this year. Their deaths weren't included in official numbers, said Capt. Tara Fields.
Fields has served 12 years in the military, eight on active duty. She joined the Kansas National Guard just over a year ago as a behavioral health officer.
The brigade lost two soldiers and the civilian employee in July.
Fields said she has been vocal about trying to make changes, but her efforts were met with complacency.
“This is not how we treat our soldiers,” Fields said. “I'm tired of watching it happen.”
On Aug. 13, she didn't get a response from a soldier she was concerned about.
“I'm just like panicking,” she recalled.
Fields said she alerted guard officials. She was at her Leavenworth home with her husband and four children as she anxiously awaited a response. Minutes turned into hours and Fields said she didn't hear anything.
She said she was sobbing, spiraling into desperation and contemplating what it would take to get leadership's attention.
“I snapped,” Fields said. “I hit a level of rage I didn't think was freaking possible.”
Concerned for her well-being, her husband called authorities. At the hospital, she thought about killing herself, going as far as wrapping a cord around her neck.
Fields was hospitalized for about a week. Once she was released, she was considered a high-risk soldier. That experience, she said, shed further light on how soldiers were treated and the gaps that existed.
Fields said she wants to see better tracking for high-risk soldiers and more support for members who are transitioning out of the guard, which can be a high-stress phase of life. Another strategy is to fully implement an embedded model. The approach places behavioral health officers directly in units. Fields said this builds rapport and trust, making it easier for someone who needs help to reach out and ask for it.
She also would like to see a review of policies and whether they are being followed. Some behavioral health positions are filled by contractors who, because of governmental policy, are limited in their role in providing direct care, Fields said. She wondered why government employees haven't been hired instead.
According to the guard, governmental work related to behavioral health programs that can't be carried out by a contracted employee is performed by the Kansas National Guard's deputy state surgeon. who is a full-time employee, and that support for service members isn't impeded.
When Fields tried to elevate concerns, she said she felt like addressing suicide wasn't a priority for guard leadership. And while she said she doesn't want to play “the female card,” she believes being vocal as a woman isn't always well-received.
Fields said by speaking out, she has a lot to lose, but hopefully something will be gained.
“We have to hold our organization accountable,” Fields said. “We are not doing right by our soldiers.”
The guard said all suicides are taken seriously and are a tragic loss for the service member's family, the Kansas Guard and the community as a whole.
Tafanelli said the guard takes a holistic approach to suicide prevention because its structure presents unique challenges. Eighty percent of the guard's 6,500 members aren't seen on a daily basis and are spread across the state.
“Every time we have that, it is a very tragic situation for the Kansas National Guard, it's a very tragic situation for each of us individually,” he said.
The approach includes resources such as training, programs, medical help and chaplain services.
Soldiers and airmen go through an awareness training when they enter the guard. In addition to learning about warning signs, they also learn how to intervene if somebody appears to be in crisis.
“We have a lot of programs that are available for individuals, but they all rely on that individual being willing to come forward and ask for help, and sometimes that's very difficult for individuals and it's that stigma,” Tafanelli said, adding that getting help isn't a sign of weakness, but rather strength.
The organization also has a behavioral health working group that looks at new research and is part of a seven-state governor's challenge. The pilot project, which is a collaboration with the VA, is composed of a military-civilian team of experts. State chaplain Terry Williams said the initiative will develop a plan unique to each state to address suicide. To get at the root of suicide, the social, mental, physical and spiritual components have to be addressed, he said.
Tafanelli said commonalities in suicides include relationship problems, financial challenges and substance abuse, and that there is programming available to address each of these areas.
“The sooner we can identify that somebody has a problem, but more importantly that they realize they have a problem and want help, I'm very confident we have programs in place that can help them and their families deal with that situation and we continually improve the programs,” he said.
There is also access to help from civilian mental health professionals if someone doesn't feel comfortable asking for help from someone in uniform, Capt. Celeste Arnold said.
Tafanelli said he supports any opportunity for expanded services. In March, Sen. Jerry Moran introduced a bill to improve access to mental health services for guard and reservist members, Moran's office said. Currently members undergo annual health assessments, but follow-up care usually is their responsibility.
“It is critical we provide our service members every opportunity to access mental health care. Unfortunately, many National Guardsmen and Reservists struggle to receive mental health care when they are not deployed or drilling,” Moran said. “This legislation will remove existing barriers to care for National Guardsmen and Reservists by allowing them to access readjustment counseling at VA Medical Centers and through VA mental health services. We have a duty to care for the men and women who bravely serve our nation, especially as it relates to mental illness and thoughts of suicide.”
Lt. Col. Lee Norman, who is also secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said mental health needs throughout society are profound.
“To judge a citizen-soldier or a citizen-airmen separate from the broader societal context I think is a mistake,” he said. “Having said that, we do pay a lot of attention to our own.”
Norman said he thinks a comprehensive approach starting with youth in middle and high school would be effective.
White Star families
On July 31, Jim Crosby found Khamis Naser, 24, dead in his apartment.
“It's like a piece of our heart's gone,” said Crosby, who spent 24 years in the Kansas guard.
Crosby considered Naser a son. His daughter became friends with Naser when they were teenagers and “he basically came to our house one day and never left,” Crosby said.
White Star families are those who have lost a relative to someone in the military who died by suicide.
After Naser's death, Crosby said he received remarks about how Naser “offed himself” and that Crosby should get back to work since Naser wasn't his flesh and blood.
“There's a wide line between sympathy and empathy, and some people showed neither, and it really surprised me,” Crosby said. “You would not expect some of the comments that I got from senior leaders in the guard.”
Crosby said Tafanelli has been supportive and does care, “but I think there are members of his staff who really don't care.”
Guard officials said the organization “works very hard to ensure a safe and healthy workplace.”
Crosby and Naser, who had been a geospatial engineer in the guard, had worked together. Crosby found it unbearable to continue working in Naser's absence and retired as a command sergeant major in the fall.
Going to see a therapist, Crosby said, has made him a better husband, father and person.
“I didn't realize how really (expletive) up I was until I went to see somebody, but in today's military the stigma is there that if you go seek help that you're weak,” he said. “I would tell you if you don't get help, you're weaker.”
He said his family's story hasn't been taken seriously enough, though he was asked by the guard to submit a report with recommendations, which he is in the process of doing.
He would like to see the guard comply with regulatory requirements for mental health providers and for every suicide threat to be taken seriously, whether the soldier has seen combat or not.
Naser's unit had 102 people and has seen three suicides, he said.
“I think when you have had the number of suicides that we have had, that everybody is responsible,” Crosby said.
About a week before Naser's death, Kelly Edwards, 28, died by suicide. His wife, Crystal Edwards, said many of his issues stemmed from when he was an active duty soldier. In 2009, he was deployed to Iraq. His unit was hit and lives were lost, Crystal Edwards said.
Her husband joined the Kansas National Guard in January 2016.
Crystal Edwards said she doesn't think the guard could have done more to prevent his death, but she wishes circumstances in the aftermath had been different.
“It's kind of disheartening that we'll talk about the active-duty soldiers like the National Guard doesn't matter,” she said.
When soldiers at Fort Riley died, it was publicly acknowledged, she said, often leading to an outpouring of support.
Crystal Edwards said she and her children didn't receive that.
“Did everybody else get treated like (expletive) or was it just me?” she asked.
While a couple individuals, including Fields, offered support, no one in her husband's unit did, she said.
“I have not seen one face, one letter, not one knock on the door,” she said.
Zachary Schaffer fatally overdosed on Jan. 23, a few days after he was discharged from the guard after failing to show up for drill, according to his mother, Wendy Mottas. She doesn't know if his death was intentional or not.
“It's devastating,” she said of her loss.
Schaffer and Naser had been friends.
“My son had a lot of irons in the fire as far as depression and some things,” Mottas said. “And (the guard) knew that, they knew that he was a risk.”
Schaffer, 21, grew up in the Hutchinson area and was living in Kansas City. He struggled with substance abuse and was flagged by the guard as a mental health risk, Mottas said.
“The military still has to take some responsibility for this, I think, and I think more could have been done to be preventative and be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “They have a responsibility to these young men and women. It's not to live their lives for them or to be mommy or daddy or anything like that, but the soldiers still have to live by the army creed, and in order to do that, they have a role in that.”
Schaffer joined the guard in May 2014. Mottas said he was skilled in anything related to computers and coding.
“I'm not blaming them by any means for his death; he's responsible for his own actions,” she said. “But as far as intervention, I think more could have been done.”
For example, Mottas said, her son could have used extra support following Naser's death.
Mottas spent two and a half years on active duty and four years in the Army reserves. Schaffer was born in Germany when she was in the military.
“I feel like when you join the service, it's a brotherhood or a sisterhood, and you should take care of each other and I don't know that it's like that anymore,” she said.
Mottas said there is a stigma to be tough, and that she would like to see mental health be taken more seriously.
“I would love to see a change, especially with the mental health,” she said.
Fields said watching soldiers die and the guard's response has inflicted a “moral injury.” The complacency goes against her values and the values the organization is supposed to exemplify, like loyalty and service, she said.
The guard has been unwilling to consider constructive changes, Fields said, prompting her to submit a letter of resignation. It is expected to be finalized by the end of April.
“The stakes are high,” Fields said. “We can do better than this.”
©2019 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.