'Be Vulnerable. Open Up,' Veteran Says As Military Suicides Rise During Pandemic

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Military suicides have increased by as much as 20% this year compared to the same period in 2019. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Military suicides have increased by as much as 20% this year compared to the same period in 2019. (John Moore/Getty Images)

This year, military suicides have increased by 20% compared to the same period in 2019.

Violent incidents have also risen as troops face COVID-19 and civil unrest on top of war-zone deployments and natural disasters, AP reports. Army and Air Force officials have said they believe the pandemic is adding stress to what service members already face.

Retired Army medic Sergio Alfaro was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Having lived with PTSD for 15 years and major depressive disorder for seven, Alfaro says COVID-19 has made his life a lot harder.

Support from family, community and programs like the Wounded Warrior Project help him “live each day as it comes,” he says.

Sergio Alfaro. (Courtesy)
Sergio Alfaro. (Courtesy)

During the pandemic, Alfaro says he fears not knowing if someone is an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 passing it on to other people. Now when he leaves his house, these fears connect to the part of him that was traumatized by war.

“You go outside the wire and all of a sudden you start wondering, like, ‘is that person going to be the one that finally kills me or shoots me or blows me up?” he says. “And now it's like I'm back home and I'm having those same thoughts again. And it's hard not to have that PTSD reinforced by that.”

At the height of his PTSD, Alfaro says he would believe strangers passing by were going to hurt, kidnap or torture him. Now with years of therapy under his belt, he tries to remind himself that he’s in the U.S. and that people are taking measures to protect each other like wearing masks and social distancing.

Alfaro says he’ll never forget one instance where he received a call about a wounded soldier. Rushing down a highway in a ‘70s tracked vehicle with his heart rapidly beating, he found out that the soldier died.

This experience came with lasting guilt for surviving and not being able to better help people, he says.

“We couldn't make it even in time,” he says. “And I was crushed after that. I'll never forget that day. And that's something that's still kind of weighs on me pretty heavily, that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't even get there in time.”

For people who are feeling the weight of the pandemic, Alfaro recommends being vulnerable and opening up. People may want to remain stoic, but talking about your emotions with others helps you connect with people who share similar experiences, he says.


Sergio Alfaro and his wife. (Courtesy)
Sergio Alfaro and his wife. (Courtesy)

Therapy helped Alfaro get to a better place, he says. While he couldn’t even imagine moving on from his trauma a few years ago, Alfaro and his wife settled into their own home this weekend.

“As much as you possibly can, as much as you trust the people, be vulnerable,” he says. “Open up. Speak about what you're going to do and then you should hopefully find a better way.”

During the pandemic, support groups and meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous have been moved online. Alfaro serves as a peer support leader with the Wounded Warrior Project and runs his own monthly group, which now holds Zoom sessions.

“I gotta admit, it's still a little tough, but I'm just happy to see out of people's faces to talk with them, to see their reactions,” he says. “It just helps me to feel not so much alone.”

Army leaders are saying they've seen about a 30% jump in active-duty suicides and are looking at solutions such as shortening combat deployments. The Wounded Warrior Project says that between April and the end of August, they saw a 48% rise in referrals to mental health providers and a 10% increase in mental health calls.

In light of the rise in military suicide rates, Army units are now having “stand-up days” where commanders focus on bringing people together. And Gen. John. Hyten, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently made a public announcement that when he was heading the U.S. Strategic Command from 2016 to 2019, he saw a psychiatrist.

People in leadership need to share their mental health stories to normalize seeking treatment, Alfaro says. He still attends therapy himself to help untie the “knots” that form in his head and avoid reentering negative thought loops, he says.

“It takes kind of continual maintenance. I wish I could say that you just get that one and done and then and you're good to go for the rest of your life,” he says. “But unfortunately, that's just not how it works.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Alex Ashlock produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 20, 2020.


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