Community Voices: Veteran pays if forward by helping prevent suicide

On Veterans Day, there will be well-deserved honors and memorials for those who have served in the U.S. armed forces at home and abroad. What many people don’t realize, however, is that soldiers often fight a more personal but equally dangerous battle when they get home: thoughts of suicide.

One man fighting this battle is Kenneth Koon, who has the look of a general and the zeal of a preacher. He’s both an Army chaplain and the founder of Armed Forces Mission, a Tyrone-based nonprofit that works to prevent suicide, with a special emphasis on veterans. Koon founded AFM on Veterans Day 2012 after his son intervened during a difficult time in Koon’s life. Now he’s paying it forward on a national scale.

In 2012, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report estimated that an average of 22 veterans die from suicide each day, a rate more than double that for civilians. A 2013 study by News21 reported that between 2005 and 2011, more than 49,000 American veterans committed suicide.

Koon believes the real toll is probably higher. Not all suicides are reported or recorded as such. “We’re losing more people to suicide than to the enemy,” he says.

AFM’s mission is to raise awareness about the issue and train more people to intervene, not as formal counselors but as “first responders” who can identify individuals (military or not) struggling with suicidal thoughts and guide them toward mental health services.

Koon conducts workshops and trainings that discuss the warning signs of suicide and how to help someone in crisis. He likens it to learning CPR or the Heimlich Maneuver, and the results can be just as life-saving. He has personally conducted 145 suicide interventions this year, two-thirds for veterans.

Soldiers, he says, are still vulnerable to the stigma of mental health issues, despite growing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (what used to be called “shell shock”) and traumatic brain injury. Add to that the difficulty of re-entering civilian life after experiencing the trauma of war, and the lack of enough funding and staffing for mental health programs to meet the demand, and the large number of struggling veterans is no surprise.

Koon constantly travels all over to give talks and conduct suicide intervention workshops designed to more openly discuss suicide risk and empower individuals to focus on prevention, intervention and “post-vention” to help people experiencing debilitating hopelessness.

Suicidal veterans are often more comfortable talking to other veterans, Koon says, but he emphasizes that just by asking those who shows signs of distress whether they feel suicidal, anyone can start a dialog that helps them feel that “that weight is off of them.”

He says every human being has a different emotional threshold, and resilience can be tested at any point in life. For those considering suicide, “We have to find ways to strengthen the part of them that wants to live.”

It’s the ultimate example of leaving no soldier behind.