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Those Left Behind By Military Suicides Work On Healing, Helping Others

In March of 2011, Don Lipstein’s oldest son Josh took his own life. Josh was a 23-year-old Master-at-Arms in the Navy and worked on river patrol boats before transferring to the base security department at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.

“It was a tragedy for me and my family,” Lipstein said. “I needed help. I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to be able to do this by myself.”

Lipstein is one of the thousands of people — parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends, among others — who are affected by military suicide every year.

In 2018, a record 325 active duty military personnel died by suicide. Upwards of 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Anytime someone dies by suicide, close to 135 people are directly affected by the death. That’s close to 1 million people each year who are affected by military-related suicides.

Lipstein reached out to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit that connects those left behind by military suicides with mentors and other services. More than a thousand people affected by military suicide attended their annual conference in Phoenix this weekend.

“It’s like coming home every year,” Kim Ruocco, the vice president of Suicide Prevention and Postvention for TAPS said in her opening speech. “Without John’s death, I wouldn’t know any of you.”

Her husband was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot who flew 75 combat missions in Iraq. He suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return, and was afraid to report those issues to his command and risk losing his clearance to fly.

Ruocco, a licensed social worker, was referred to TAPS. She says the network of other suicide survivors helped her find meaning.

“For survivors of military suicide, there’s this fear that their loved one’s death will be remembered and all their life and service will be forgotten,” Ruocco said. “We know that we can take that and make some meaning out of it - whether that’s to live your life more intentionally and connected, or do prevention work or postvention work or intervention work, whatever it is.”

When Ruocco’s husband died, a military trauma specialist recommended she tell her young children that their father was killed in an accident. She did.

When her 10-year-old began blaming himself for his father’s “accident,” Ruocco came clean and told the kids about their father’s mental illness.

When a military parent dies, the family is usually given 90 days to move out of base housing. After that, they’re no longer technically considered a “military family” — and that part of the child’s identity disappears.

“Good Grief” pairs each child up with an active duty or veteran mentor, like Air Force Staff Sgt. Clynton Trewyn, to help them stay connected.

“To see their strength and their perseverance they go through is unbelievable,” Trewyn said. “They all have this different dynamic. They have different stories, different backgrounds, different impacts that have happened to them, and they all i think have just as much of an impact on us as we could ever have on them.”

All of this is part of what Ruocco calls postvention. The opposite of prevention, Ruocco says postvention provides survivors a roadmap to stabilize, integrate their grief and eventually continue to grow in life.

Lipstein found growth by helping other dads who lose military children to suicide.

“I definitely needed stabilization,” he said. “I learned how to work on my grief, and now I’m definitely in the post-traumatic growth stage.”

When a military member dies by suicide, the service reaches out to TAPS. Lipstein then reaches out to the servicemember’s father. Not everyone responds. But those that do, Lipstein connects them with resources and invites them to events, meet other survivors, and try to heal.

“It gives me a sense of purpose,” he said. “It has helped me to take the tragedy of my son’s suicide and turn it into something positive. And that is something that feels really good for me. His death did not go in vain. I feel like we’re saving other lives, and he’s helping me do that.”

Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.