Soldier's suicide sparks campaign for change

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by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on August 10, 2011 at 6:05 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 10 at 6:05 PM

LAKEWOOD, Wash. -- The suicide of an Army infantryman stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord has sparked a campaign calling on more help for depressed service members.

Iraq war veterans from a group called March Forward held a news conference Wednesday.  They pointed to the death of Sgt. Derrick Kirkland, who they say tried to commit suicide three times in a two-week period -- once in Iraq, once while traveling home and once at Fort Lewis -- before he successfully killed himself in his barracks room last year.

Despite those attempts, the group said Kirkland was deemed a "low risk" for committing suicide.

"Within 48 hours of being in the car of Fort Lewis, he was dead," said Michael Prysner, an Army veteran.  "The mental health care system is broken.  Soldiers are sent on constant, repeated deployments.  When they ask for help, they receive notoriously inadequate care."

Kirkland's mother is coming to Lakewood from Indiana Friday night to discuss military suicides with soldiers and veterans at Coffee Strong, a non-profit java shop that provides services for soldiers.  The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.

JBLM declined to comment on Kirkland's case, but a spokesman said suicide is an issue that is taken very seriously.

"JBLM currently has 23 programs in place designed to help soldiers in need of mental health treatment," including training sessions and confidential counseling, said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, spokesman for I Corps.

According to some statistics, 18 veterans commit suicide a day.

Senator Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate's Veterans Affairs committee, has been working on the issue for years.  One of her priorities is getting more states to report military suicides so the federal government can measure the depth of the problem.

"We now have more soldiers who have died by suicide than in conflict," Murray said Wednesday.  "That is a wake-up call to our community."

Rod Wittmier created the Vets Meet Vets program, which pairs veterans who are suffering from PTSD with seasoned vets.

"That recent vet immediately knows they're not alone," Wittmier said.  "The seasoned vet, their self esteem rises as well."

Soldiers and veterans cannot entirely rely on the government or military, Wittmier argued.  The community needs to step in.

"Fill the gap, do whatever is needed," he said.  "There's no cavalry coming.  We're it."

Wittmier's group is holding a special concert to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9-11 in Tacoma.  The concert at Temple Theater begins at 3 p.m.  More information can be found at the group's website: www.vetsmeetvets.org

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