Suicide Rate Spikes in Vietnam Vets Who Won't Seek Help

PHOTO: Vietnam Veteran Harold Evans stands with Martin Omafray at the Wall that Heals at Iron Horse Park at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs June 10, 2011.
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Every Christmas Rudi Gresham, a former combat soldier in Vietnam, gets a Christmas card from a fellow veteran who was nearly pushed to the brink of suicide because of despair.

"The guy was in his late 50s and his wife had left him and he came down with cancer from Agent Orange, he was broke and he had to move in with his mom and dad--he didn't know where to go from there," said Gresham, who was then serving as senior advisor to the Department of Veterans Affairs under the George W. Bush administration.

"Everything had gone to hell," said Gresham. "But I communicated with him."

Now 68 and retired in South Carolina, Gresham was able to get the veteran the 10 years of back pay he deserved by authenticating his service with a commanding officer. Today, the man's cancer is under control and he has a new woman in his life.

Gresham said getting that thank you card for saving the veteran's life was "the most gratifying moment" in his eight-year career with the VA. "I tell my kids, this is the reward for my work."

But three other depressed friends were not so lucky and took their own lives, becoming statistics in a rising tide of suicides among baby boomers, many of them Vietnam War veterans.

Just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its latest statistics on suicide rates among Americans, finding that the number of middle-aged Americans who took their own lives was up more than 28 percent.

Annual suicide rates among U.S. adults aged 35 to 64 increased from 13.7 to 17.6 suicides per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2010.

The greatest increases in suicide rates were among people aged 50 to 54 years (48 percent) and 55 to 59 years (49 percent).

For the whole population, the national rate was 12.4 per 100,000 in that decade, according to the CDC. The most common mechanisms were suffocation or hanging, poisoning and firearms. Increases were seen among both men and women.

The CDC cites the recent economic downturn, a "cohort effect" among baby boomers who had unusually high suicide rates during their adolescent years, and a rise in intentional overdoses because of increased availability of prescription opiods.

But suicide rates among Vietnam veterans are the highest of any particular group, according to John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Eight million Americans report suicidal thoughts, and 1.1 million will attempt suicide. An estimated 38,000 will succeed in killing themselves, according to the CDC. Most are male, by a four to one margin, and are single and lack a college education.

The suicide rate jumped higher for women (32 percent) than for men (27 percent).

"Men tend to be more lonely and have a harder time maintaining and replacing relationships than women, especially when they get into middle age," said Draper. "Men are busy working or tie their relationships to work and when they lose their job, they lose their relationships."

Those who are less stable in their personal lives are also less stable in the workforce, he said.

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