‘Suicide Survivors' Say Government Needs to Do More

Families: Government needs to do more after military suicides

At the national headquarters for the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) in Washington, D.C., a plaque reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

But some of those left behind say that support isn't there.

Kim Ruocco said whenever her husband, Jon, came home from work, he would “grab the kids” and flex his arms so “they’d hang off his arms. And he'd grab me in the kitchen and he'd dance. He was just lovable."

Jon Ruocco flew helicopters for the Marine Corps for 15 years. 

But three months after his final deployment, he killed himself after a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

"I would just say I just want to die because I didn't want to feel that pain,” Kim said.  “You just don't want to feel the pain."

Don Lipstein said he knows that pain. He was the last person to speak with his son Josh.  “I asked him, 'Do you have a gun with you?' and he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Is it loaded?'  And he said, 'Yes.'  I said, 'Can you please just take the bullets out?' and he said, 'I can't do that, Dad.'"

After two tours in Iraq with the Navy, Josh Lipstein had become addicted to painkillers after surgery that ended his naval career.

Lipstein explained, "It's complicated grief when you lose someone in the military because of the fact they're serving their country. It becomes so much more complicated. There's guilt, shame. There's just, there's a lot of anger."

Kim Ruocco and Don Lipstein are part of a growing group of military families called “suicide survivors.” And they say almost as soon as the funeral is over, they lose their connection to the military and are left on their own to battle their grief.

Janet Kemp, the director of the V.A.’s National Mental Health Program for Suicide Prevention, told the News 4 I-Team, “I think we're doing a switch there. I think we realize how important families are, and they didn't sign up for this and went along for the ride and end up with the consequences."

Kemp says both the V.A. and the Department of Defense said they're changing how the military combats suicide and its impact on families, and have created a 24-hour crisis line that Kemp says is for anyone associated with the military.

But some families say it's just not enough and can result in devastating consequences.

"I consider my daughter a casualty of this war," said Christine Koch. She and her husband, Bill, told the I-Team they lost two children in the war: Steven, an army gunner killed in Afghanistan, and then his older sister Lynn, who committed suicide following her brother's death.

Bill Koch said, “They give you a list of doctors to see, try this group or try that group. There's very little followup."

The Kochs turned to a non-profit group of volunteers called Hope for the Warriors. "This is what we've done to try and cling on to life because the government certainly doesn't care,” Christine Koch said. “We are no longer considered military."

Kim Ruocco told us, “I do feel like the siblings are the ones I worry about the most." She said unlike spouses and children, siblings tend to be forgotten.

Both the D.O.D. and the V.A. said they don’t have the legal authority or the money to provide mental health assistance to families outside of dependents, which are typically spouses and children.

So, Kim Ruocco and Don Lipstein now counsel all types of family members coping with military suicides for another community service organization called TAPS -- short for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

"We're getting at least two calls a day for a family of suicide," Ruocco said -- a growing list of home front casualties in a battle with no real end in sight.

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