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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 08:29 am

A father’s plea to stop veterans’ suicides

The VA should help soldiers know they need help

Untitled Document It was a nice surprise to see Mike Bowman and his wife, Kim, last week on the NBC network news, testifying before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. They were on CNN and CBS as well, and newspapers across the country picked up their story. The congressional hearing and the media attention were therapy for the pain they have been living with for the past two years. “I challenge you to do for the American soldier what the soldier did for each of you and for his country,” Bowman told Congress. “Take care of them.”
It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago, while the rest of us were basking in the joy of family and food, that my friends, the Bowman family of the northern-Illinois town of Polo, experienced the worst day of their lives. Several generations had gathered for a feast, but Tim Bowman, a 23-year-old who had returned earlier that year from a one-year stint in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard, didn’t show up. After he failed to answer phone calls, his father, Mike Bowman, decided to see whether he was at the family electrical shop. He was on the floor, dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. “His war was over; his demons were gone,” Bowman said at the hearing. But if the Department of Veterans Affairs will stop its attitude of denial and take serious action, others can be saved from becoming victims of an epidemic of veterans’ suicides. Earlier this year, CBS News launched an investigation to find out just how many veterans commit suicide. The Department of Defense gave statistics only on suicides among active-duty soldiers —188 in 2006. When CBS went to the Department of Veterans Affairs in search of more comprehensive statistics, reporters were told that they weren’t available, so CBS did its own study. In 2005, in the 45 states reporting, there were 6,256 suicides among people who had served in the armed forces. That’s 120 a week. The VA only quarreled with the statistics, which drew an angry reaction from Mike Bowman on Capitol Hill: “The VA should embrace this study as it reveals the scope of a huge problem rather than complaining about its accuracy. An average of 120 veterans will die every week by their own hand until the VA recognizes this fact and does something about it.”
A better demobilization process for National Guard troops would be a start. After Tim Bowman came home, in March 2005, he told his father he’d undergone some mental-health screening, but it was “a joke.” One source describes the current system as “Ask but don’t tell.” Every returning soldier is asked four questions related to posttraumatic stress, the source says, but “no one expects them to answer truthfully.” The soldiers just want to get home. Tim’s commander in Iraq, Maj. Mike Kessel of Mahomet, made a request two months before his unit returned from Iraq to change the process by allowing the soldiers to go home briefly, then come back together for health screening. His proposal was rejected. “We got off the bus, we had a five-minute ceremony, and boom, we were released,” he told a reporter. “We didn’t come back to drill for 110 days. Suddenly, your support system is gone.”
Mike Bowman’s idea is that if veterans won’t go to the VA, the VA should go to them. I ask what he means by that. “The VA has always focused on the fact that veterans have to come to them for help,” he says, “but these guys don’t know they’re screwed up — they think how they feel is the new normal — so you need to bring awareness to everybody that they can get better.” Many people don’t realize that although veterans are registered with the Department of Defense they have to start over, through a new paperwork process, to get registered with Veterans Affairs. Bowman suggests hiring veterans part-time to go out and get other vets signed up for counseling or other services: “If you don’t get registered with the VA, you don’t get anything.”
After returning from Iraq, Tim Bowman was moody and had a glazed look in his eyes, but he hadn’t shown many other signs that he wasn’t coping well. He once told his father about having to shoot at a car with a family inside that had failed to stop at a checkpoint, but it was rare for him to talk about the war. It was only after Tim’s death — when the VA sent a letter saying that he could come in for an appointment — that the family learned that Tim had reached out for help. His is a sad story at Christmas, but Mike Bowman is a voice of hope, determined to get this country to take a more tender and proactive approach to suicide prevention and combat-related mental-health issues. Here’s what he says we can do: “Let soldiers know that admitting they have a problem with doing the most unnatural thing that a human being can do is all right. Grab that soldier and thank him for saying, ‘I’m not OK.’ ”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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