By Lisa Gillespie, Side Effects Public Media
In 2011, Alex Randolph was in Iraq, in the middle of a tour of duty with the Army. What happened one evening would haunt him for years, and change the way his friends back home saw him. Those memories eventually led Randolph to think about killing himself.
As Randolph and his team slowly drove down dusty streets in a tank-like military vehicle, a few kids emerged from a house holding guns.
The soldiers cautiously watched the kids, who ranged in age from about 8 to 12.
And then, one child started shooting.
“We ended up taking the lives of some kids,” recalls Randolph, a Louisville resident. “We had to — it was either our life or their life. When you have an 8-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old child pointing an AK, pointing a weapon at you, and you’re looking straight at it, you have a split-second reaction.”
Intellectually, he knows why he did it.
“Am I going to give them a chance to shoot me and take my life? Or shoot one of my brothers or sisters and take their lives? Or am I going to take that shot and take them out?” Randolph said.
But emotionally, he questioned that decision for years. And when he went home with a medical discharge, he felt like a casualty of war. His friends back home called him a monster, he said. And for years he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from living through that night and from seeing fellow soldiers die.
Randolph’s thoughts led him into a downward spiral, and he felt suicide was the only answer.
That experience is not uncommon for veterans. And nearly 17 veterans nationwide die by suicide every day.
“I don’t think veteran suicide is a new phenomena,” says Sherman Gillums, chief advocacy officer for the veterans advocacy group AMVETS. “I do think what’s changed is our awareness because information is more free-flowing, and the experiences of service members and veterans is more visible.”
That awareness worked in Randolph’s favor. He knew he had to get help. So, one day in 2017, he posted an SOS on the Veteran’s Club Facebook page. Iraq War Veteran Jeremy Harrell, the social club’s executive director, created the group to rebuild the connection that’s lost when service members leave the military.
“Jeremy is the reason why I’m still here,” Randolph says. “Because at that point, I was ready to just end everything.”
In the few years since Harrell started getting a small group of vets together, the group has grown to some 2,000 members across Kentucky. And in that time Harrell has fielded many calls from suicidal vets and their family members. Harrell said he draws from his own experiences with suicidal thoughts, and training he’s received on suicide prevention.
“I’ve had conversations, sometimes four or five hours, in an effort to try to get them ready to go get some help, and I hate to use the phrase, ‘talk them off the ledge,’ but to do that,” Harrell said.
Harrell also helps connect the vets to counseling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s a solution Randolph had sought when he was struggling back in 2017. But he says he was told there was a six- to- eight-week wait.
That response felt like a slap in the face.
“Then what the hell are y’all even here for? Why should I bother trying to go through y’all to get help? I’ve waited long enough,” Randolph says. “Now you’re telling me I’ve got to two, three, four, six weeks to get the help I’m asking for? You know, I may not be here.”
Harrell, though, has connections with the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville. Harrell got Randolph in to see a counselor the very next day.
Robley Rex officials say there have been changes since Randolph was told he’d have to wait for an appointment. Louisville VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kelly Marcum says it now offers same-day mental health appointments.
“If you need to go in on that day to see someone, but it’s not an emergency issue, you just need to talk to somebody because you have some kind of issue, [and] you’re not feeling an immediate danger to harm yourself or others, you can get at least an assessment with some mental health clinic staff,” Marcum said.
Marcum also says the hospital is working on other projects to prevent veteran suicide.
Since July, the Louisville VA has distributed more than 2,000 gun locks to vets. Marcum says even a few minutes to unlock a gun could save a life — there’s usually only a five-minute window when a person is actively attempting suicide. In Kentucky in 2016, three-fourths of suicides by veterans were carried out using a firearm, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There are also efforts to better educate families of veterans. Gillums says AMVETS is trying to teach families about signs that indicate a veteran is struggling and might be considering suicide. AMVETS recently started offering a suicide prevention online curriculum geared to families.
“It’s the families, the people that are the first-line witness to what’s happening that don’t know what they’re seeing,” Gillum says. “The veteran is reacting to a lack of support and a lack of understanding of what’s happening.”
And the Veteran’s Club Facebook page is full of people who are willing to help. On a recent evening, 15 people offered to pick up a vet who said he was having suicidal thoughts and was drinking heavily at a bar. Randolph was one of those people.
“When I start seeing fellow brothers and sisters comment and post if they need help — somebody reached out to me and gave me a hand and led me,” Randolph said. “Now it’s my turn to pay it forward and reach out.”
Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, or text to 838255.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.