For veterans who have considered suicide

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As the warrior class becomes an ever-smaller share of the population since the advent of the all-volunteer military in the 1970s, the struggles of veterans are likely to become increasingly remote to a large segment of the American population.

All the more striking then to consider this pair of statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs: Veterans make up 7 percent of the American population, but account for 20 percent of suicides.

Jeremy Knapp, a retired Navy cryptologist who volunteers with the American Legion, talked about coping with post-traumatic stress disorder during a forum hosted by the Mental Health Association of Forsyth County at the Old Salem Visitors Center last week.

“I’m talking to you from the position of a veteran that isn’t better, but that’s okay,” said Knapp, who sat next to his wife on the panel, along with a peer support specialist and licensed clinical social worker from the VA Medical Center in Salisbury.

With glasses and a light beard, Knapp’s thoughtfulness fuses with an intensity that can be intimidating while displaying a naked sense of vulnerability. Although he’s never had a problem with alcohol or drugs, Knapp said, “I have a lot of passive self-harm behavior.” Knapp, who experienced a traumatic brain injury during his military service, said he wants other veterans to recognize the tendency in themselves and head it off before it manifests as a suicide attempt.

“Passive self-harm can take a lot of forms,” Knapp said. “It could be: ‘Well, I’ll just drive a little faster. What if you get hurt? No big deal.’ A thought of looking at the car on the side of the road rolling over the hill. You’re not contemplating suicide. These are just random thoughts that you’re having.

“Scientists will say that the brain develops in the early twenties,” Knapp said. “A lot of people see combat at 18- or 19-year-olds…. With the high-tech world of the military, now we can press a button or a remote control with a video game and a plane flying 500 miles away you take away people you’ve never seen. That haunts you. How do you deal with that?”

When he left the military and went to work in the civilian world, Knapp said initially he excelled despite his disability and adopted an outward persona as a fun-loving guy. His wife Heather, a nurse, concurred. “Everything was really good,” she said. “We lived a great life.”

About a year after they moved to Winston-Salem for family health reasons, Heather said she noticed some changes in her husband.

“I didn’t know if it was us,” she said. “We’d been married about eight years at that point. One day Jeremy came to me, and he said, ‘I’m leaving.’ That was really hard. I didn’t know what was going on. A couple days later he came back and said, ‘I’ve got some stuff I’ve got to deal with.’ It was hard for him to tell me these things. It was hard for him to deal with, so he went back to the VA on his own.”

Heather turned to the employee assistance program at the hospital where she works and lucked into talking to someone with a military background who understood what her husband was going through. He referred her to a counselor who specialized in PTSD.

“Through my experiences with her, he spoke to me more and opened up,” Heather said. “That was really a great thing, and it’s great that there are civilian doctors that specialize in PTSD and help spouses. I’ve learned so much about what could happen and secondary PTSD. I learned the best thing is to just be supportive, be there. Gentle prodding. Don’t force it. Be a listening ear. Be a hug. Sometimes that’s all he needs is a hug, or to hold my hand.”

Something as simple as a gunlock — available free of charge, with no questions asked from the VA — can make the difference between tragedy and staying safe for a veteran’s family.

“With that, we’re not saying that veterans who have issues can’t have guns,” Jeremy Knapp said. “I have issues, as I’ve mentioned. When my symptoms are bad, I get rid of ’em. It’s the easiest way not to have a problem. They’re material things. I can go buy another one of ’em. I’ve done it. Your life or the life of another that you may take in a bit of confusion or simply not being safe, it’s not worth a material item.

“I get a question from veterans one on one: ‘I’m afraid to go get help because I’m afraid they’re going to take away my guns,’” Knapp added. “That’s actually a myth. A judge has to make that decision. Just because you go to the VA and you see a counselor… and you seek help, that’s actually a positive step. I want to dispel that myth. Go get the help.”