Latest in an occasional series on suicide in North Central Massachusetts
By Michael Hartwell
GARDNER -- A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found 22 veterans kill themselves every day. In 2012, Natanael Radke was almost one of them.
Now 31 and living in Gardner, his message to other veterans contemplating suicide is to seek help.
Radke enlisted in the Army in 2007 and is currently in the Army National Guard. In 2010 he was in a bus rollover crash in Afghanistan that he does not remember. It left him with a spinal injury and a traumatic brain injury that went undiagnosed and has been shown to be linked to suicidal thoughts.
He was redeployed before the traumatic brain injury was discovered and Radke was sent back to the states for treatment in a warrior Transition Unit for 30 months, where he was moved around 33 times and had little contact with his wife, Anna.
He eventually found himself back in Worcester with Anna and their two young children, ages 30 months and 6 months. He put all of his savings into opening a towing company, but that failed. He said his medical issues kept him from getting the few normal jobs that were available, and he didn't use all of the veteran support services available to him.
"We were living in a basement with no heat and no food and no money, and I had nothing to live for," said Radke.
His breaking point was when he was at the supermarket. His older son wanted a muffin, but the little money he had was needed for the items on his list.
"I didn't have the $1.79 to get him a muffin," said Radke.
On Oct. 7, 2012, he took some pills and drank alcohol and got behind the wheel. His plan was to speed into a tree in Shrewsbury and make it look like an accident so his family could collect his military benefits.
He was speeding toward a wooded area when a Shrewsbury police officer pulled him over. He didn't want to turn it into a chase and complicate the scheme. When the officer saw he was intoxicated, Radke told him everything, including his death wish.
That's when everything changed, according to Radke. The Shrewsbury Police Department helped enroll him in a support program. He and his family now live in a home provided by Veteran Homestead Inc. of Gardner.
In January his brother lent him money to buy an auto sales company in Gardner, and Radke said his life is now back on track and stable.
Leslie Lightfoot, founder and CEO of Veteran Homestead, said the organization has never had a suicide among the veterans they have housed, and credits the hard work of staff and the available counseling services. The Veteran Homestead provides services, or identifies other places that provide services, for issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, physical impairments, and drug and alcohol issues.
"Any organization can only do what the veteran allows them to do," said Lightfoot.
She said while the focus on the veteran suicide problem has targeted recent veterans, the problem persists for veterans of all wars and conflicts.
"It's been a very hard road for Vietnam vets. I think after drugs and alcohol, and burning bridges, a lot of them get desperate and think they don't have anything," said Lightfoot.
She said older veterans are slipping through the cracks because the focus has been on Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.
It's also hard to accurately track veteran suicide rates because veteran status is not included on most death certificates, she said.
Gabe Nutter is with the Mass SAVE Team, a program from the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services that helps veterans who might be suicidal or have other mental-health issues. He is the team leader for western and central Massachusetts.
"The best solution is to know that you don't have to go it alone," Nutter said.
He said a lot of veterans come home with wounds other people can't see, especially PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Advances in body armor and vehicle armor stop many physical injuries, but allow shockwaves from blasts to penetrate and harm the human brain.
These issues compound with the difficulties that many people feel adjusting to civilian life.
"When you get home, it's very easy to isolate yourself," said Nutter, 32, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and was diagnosed with PTSD. He said combat veterans can have outbursts, anger issues, irrational responses to normal situation and feelings of sadness and depression.
Active duty members of the military are averaging one suicide per day, according to Nutter.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder has been around since war has been around," said Nutter. "It used to be called 'battle fatigue,' it's been called shell shock. It's been schizophrenia." He said returning Vietnam veterans with PTSD were routinely misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and it wasn't until the 1980s that PTSD became a medical term.
"There's still this stigma in the military about mental health," said Nutter. He said military leaders are trying to do something about it, but too many veterans try to tough it out and fail to take advantage of the resources available.
To encourage veterans to seek help, the military has been using the phrase, "It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help."
He said suicides are happening among veterans in equal numbers along all age groups, and equal rates among men and women.
Nutter urges veterans who need help to contact Mass SAVE at 617-210-5743. They can also go to their town or city's veteran agent for a referral of services, visit MassVetsAdvisor.org or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK and press "2" for veteran-specific help.
Despite all the resources available, some veterans still aren't using them. Nutter said he still lost two friends to suicide over the past year and a half. Radke lost a soldier in his team to suicide last October.
Radke said he's found a lot of help through church, and keeping negative influences away. He stays away from alcohol and negative people. War scenes in movies and songs about violence disturb him, so he keeps away from them. Being around positive people and keeping his mind occupied has made a big difference and gives him a chance to help others.
"It's OK to ask for help," said Radke. "People will help you, but you've got to take that first step."
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