Monday, February 19, 2007

Experts say many suicidal war vets don't seek counseling

The Associated Press - Sunday, February 18, 2007


After David Fickel had been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, friends and family members noticed he changed from a fun-loving guy to an anxious, angry man. They urged him to get help.

"We tried," said his stepfather, Mitch Aanden. "He said, 'No, I'm tough. I am a Marine.'"

Fickel, 25, took his own life with a shotgun last Memorial Day.

He is one of 13 active-duty or discharged servicemen under age 30 who committed suicide in Minnesota between Jan. 1, 2003, and last October, according to death records. Star Tribune interviews with relatives of 10 of those veterans said their loved ones hadn't sought counseling.

Experts say many suicide victims don't seek treatment, and surveys show six of 10 servicemen who need mental health counseling don't seek it.

Suicide by war veterans gained attention after Jonathan Schulze, a Marine veteran who fought in Iraq, took his life Jan. 16. His family says the St. Cloud VA Medical Center turned him away when he talked of suicide. Veterans Affairs officials won't comment and officials are investigating.

But his death raised concerns about the needs of 1.4 million troops whose duties in Iraq and Afghanistan can involve intense combat. Recent research found that nearly one in six recent combat veterans reported experiencing depression, general anxiety or post-traumatic stress.

In Iraq and Kuwait, 22 U.S. soldiers killed themselves in 2005, nearly double the national rate, an Army study found.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is nearly four times as common in veterans of Army or Marine ground units in Iraq and Afghanistan than in servicemen in other units, according to a 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

People who commit suicide often have depression, relationship problems or alcohol- and drug-abuse problems.

"All these things are warning signs, and the more you have, the more likely it is to happen," said Dr. Paula Clayton, retired head of the University of Minnesota psychiatry department and now medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.

Dr. Martha Sajatovic, a psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said post-traumatic stress complicates treatment.

"If I have a problem already, and I toss another problem on top of that, the burden I have to struggle with is going to be greater," said Sajatovic.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's working to improve services for vets and it has programs.
"Everyone at the VA wants to reach these guys and get them in and support them when they come home," said Dr. Lawrence E. Adler, director of a VA mental health research center in Denver, which this month co-sponsored a conference on veteran suicide.

Robin Aanden said her son, David Fickel, was a level-headed, caring kid. He made people laugh and loved to play baseball and golf.

Fickel graduated from Litchfield High School in 1999 and hoped to be a teacher. His interest in the Marines surfaced in his junior year, surprising his family.

After boot camp, Fickel transferred to Camp Lejeune, N.C. His unit went to Korea and Japan. After Sept. 11, 2001, his unit went to Afghanistan and later to the Persian Gulf.

When he returned home after four years of Marine duty, he'd changed.

"He quieted down," said Grady Huggett, his best friend.

Fickel seemed anxious that he'd be called back, said his sister Haley. He spoke vaguely of war, offering hints of sniper duty in Afghanistan. He told Huggett that he had shot people.

Early last year, he quit eating right, lost weight, slept badly and stopped caring about his appearance, his mother said. He drank heavily and got arrested for drunken driving, she said.

"I told him his anger was getting out of control," she added. When she offered to make an appointment for help at a clinic, he wouldn't go.

The day before his death, Fickel talked to his sisters and best friend about killing himself. They said they got him away from his loaded shotgun, and spent the evening around a bonfire in his sisters' back yard. They thought he was better, but he took his life the next day.

Information from: Star Tribune,

--submitted by Patti Woodard

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