Utah summit: Epidemic of veteran suicides needs a community response
Stu Shipley has come close to putting a .357 caliber bullet through his head so many times in the decades since the Vietnam War that he can't recall the number.
"It's probably 35, 40 times," said Shipley, the keynote speaker Wednesday at the Governor's Military and Family summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
That desire to die, to end the suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is gone now that the former Marine from Tooele has finally gotten mental health help.
"It never really goes away, this dark passenger you live with, but I have found how to cope," Shipley told mental health clinicians at the summit, which followed the Generations Mental Health Conference this week.
It's important that everyone, not just mental health providers and employers, know about veterans issues, said Steve Allen, coordinator of the post-traumatic stress disorder team at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
"We've essentially outsourced the war to a small proportion of folks. And we've essentially outsourced taking care of them to the VA," Allen said during a session on PTSD. "Part of the message is [that] it's our responsibility as a community to help our service members reintegrate."
Suicide was a topic during several seminars at the summit, and for good reason. A VA report issued in February said 22 veterans a day commit suicide; 69 percent are older than 50.
It's also a problem among active-duty military. A record 349 service men and women took their lives last year, according to Pentagon figures.
In his address, Shipley shared his journey through decades of drug and alcohol addiction, two failed marriages, and unquenchable anger to today. He retired two years ago as a truck driver, and now speaks publicly to encourage other veterans to get help.
Shipley finally called the VA's crisis line, 800-273-8255, and talked for hours by phone with a suicide prevention coordinator. He later checked himself into the VA's psychiatric unit for several weeks.
"I found I was not alone," he said. "No one likes to talk about suicide, but it's out there."