The residents of Skyway, Washington, rang in the new year with a major tragedy. An argument over a gun led to the New Year’s Day shooting and injury of four people at a private residence in Skyway, a relatively small community in the northwestern part of the state. After fleeing the scene, the suspect – rather than stopping at a Park Ranger checkpoint, instead opened fire on two rangers, mortally wounding one of them: Park Ranger Margaret Anderson. The ensuing manhunt and string of violence ended the next day when the body of Benjamin Colton Barnes – clothed with just a T-shirt, jeans, and one shoe – was found lying in an icy creek within the park. Two weapons were also recovered at the scene. Police reports state that the 24-year-old Iraq veteran might have been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Of course, not all veterans suffering from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are prone to such violent acts but, given the growing number of men and women returning in recent years from the front lines in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war zones who have been diagnosed with PTSD and/or TBI, that possibility is an issue that an increasing number of first responders may have to face on the job. Because there is now a more widespread understanding of how such conditions affect not only the veterans themselves but also their families, and others they encounter, several federal agencies as well as private and public groups are looking for, and finding, better ways to help returning soldiers reintegrate more easily into civilian life.
In a speech last year at the Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C., in early March, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki pointed out that, “Of the more than 30 thousand suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are veteran suicides.”
“That means, on average,” he continued, “eighteen veterans commit suicide each day [emphasis added].” The VA (Veterans Administration) statistics on veteran suicides, or attempted suicides, of course, cover all veterans – not only those who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, but also the millions of others who served in World War II, or the Korean War, or the War in Vietnam. However, the PTSD/TBI rates for veterans who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan have been increasing and are now (according to the latest VA statistics available) more than 100 suicides per year, and still growing.
Gender Differences & an Unusual Definition of “Success”
Two additional points to remember: (a) In general, the suicide rates for veterans seem to follow national trends when it comes to gender – a higher percentage of women attempt suicide, but men have higher “success” rates and are more likely to use firearms as their method of choice. (b) Because of the apparent (but statistically unquantified) increase in incidents such as the Skyway shootings, there is a growing concern that a greater number of veterans may in the future attempt to end their lives by deliberately being “taken down” by law enforcement officers – committing “suicide by cop,” in other words.
Providing responders with the resources, tools, and training needed to prepare them for potentially dangerous and/or violent encounters with veterans suffering from PTSD and/or TBI can help mitigate negative outcomes. Established as a non-government group for sharing its resources, tools, and training, the HandsOn Network – with 250 locations in 16 nations – is the volunteer arm of the Points of Light Institute, which was created in 1990 by an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit group focused on volunteering and community service. As a major component of the HandsOn Network, the Community Blueprint Network grew out of collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and over 55 other organization – and is guided by an advisory council that includes representatives from the Armed Forces Services Corporation, the National Military Families Association, and the American Legion Auxiliary.
The Community Blueprint Network is a national volunteer program in the United States designed to provide community leaders with the information and tools they need to better serve military personnel and their families. The Network focuses particular attention on eight interrelated areas of service issues – behavioral health, education and higher education, veteran and military spouse employment, family strength, financial management and legal assistance, housing stability and homelessness assistance, integration, and volunteerism.
It is, in short, therefore, a reliable multipurpose “starting place” for people “who want to do something, but are not really sure where to begin,” says Tricia Thompson, the Network’s Director of Military Initiatives. In practice, the Network offers information on a specific issue, connects users with other leaders within the same community, and provides the various training tools needed to address the specific issue involved.
The training tools provided by The Community Blueprint Network are open access. By clicking the “Practices” tab on the network’s home page and downloading “Promising Practices,” emergency planners, responders, and receivers can, for example, either create a community action plan or find an additional resource for the training of police officers, emergency medical technicians, firefighters, and other first responders.
Volunteer Professionals to Help “Mitigate the Violence”
One such resource is Give an Hour, a national network of 6,000-plus trained mental-health professionals who volunteer their services to military members and their families. These same professionals also offer healthcare providers and first responder communities the resources, tools, and training needed to prepare earlier and more effectively for potentially dangerous and/or violent encounters with veterans suffering from PTSD and/or TBI.
To mitigate the violence that may be, and is, sometimes exhibited by persons suffering from anxiety disorders such as PTSD, it is important that first responders gain a better understanding of how to interact with such individuals. According to Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist and founder of Give an Hour, situations that trigger an overwhelming stress event for a service person suffering from PTSD can rapidly escalate and lead to additional aggression from that person.
Although it may be “absolutely appropriate” for a police officer or other responder to “take a commanding in-your-face approach,” Van Dahlen says, she recommends, instead, that responders change their tactics when dealing with a person who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Simply by speaking to the veteran in a different tone of voice, the responder can help the veteran respond differently – i.e., less violently – when he or she feels threatened. When responders are faced with situations that are “confusing, stressful, and potentially dangerous,” Van Dahlen also points out, acquiring the awareness of mental health concerns can make “a tremendous difference.”
Some of the Same Things – Plus a Few Major Differences
Another available resource to first responders is the Steptoe Group – a consulting firm that focuses on improving the access to and delivery of health, science, and educational services. Chairman and CEO of the Group is Ronald Steptoe, a veteran himself, who relied on his own professional experience with healthcare advocacy and multicultural marketing to put together the Warrior-Patient Centric Healthcare Training Seminar Series – a training program used by the Department of Defense and the VA to: (a) educate providers about military and veteran culture; (b) facilitate better understanding; and (c) improve communications between patients and providers. “We realized,” Steptoe points out, “that not only are we seeing some of the same things we’ve seen with Vietnam [veterans], but we’re already starting to see some differences in people that were impacted [by PTSD]. … We try to act as the voice of the individual who is impacted, and speak on his/her behalf globally to say, ‘this is who I am, here are my issues’.”
To prevent repeats of tragedies such as the Skyway shootings, the development of better understanding of PTSD and its potential effects on individuals as well as their communities is crucial to managing the influx of returning soldiers and their readjustment into civilian life. Because a relatively high percentage of National Guard and Reserve personnel have served in active combat in recent years, all communities large and small throughout the nation – not just the “military-base towns” – would be well advised to address this fairly complex issue.
“If we educate those who touch our veterans and their families, we decrease the likelihood that [the veterans] … will need severe, significant, intensive treatment,” says Van Dahlen. “First responders are the ones who often get there first, see it first, and if they know what to do, how to respond, and have the compassion that comes with that knowledge [the incident is] … much more likely [to have] a positive resolution.”
For additional information on:
Community Blueprint Network, visit www.communityblueprintnetwork.org
Give an Hour, visit www.giveanhour.org
HandsOn Network, visit https://www.volunteermatch.org/search/org72991.jsp
Veteran suicide statistics, visit http://www.va.gov/opa/speeches/2010/10_0111hold.asp
Kate Rosenblatt is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. She has a background in education reform, communications, and business development, and has written for a number of publications on a broad range of subjects ranging from finance to fashion to public safety and related topics.