CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Thousands of veterans across the country are suffering a silent war, months or even decades after they return from combat. Hundreds of veterans in northeast Ohio are struggling with mental health issues and even suicide. One veteran who survived several suicide attempts is now helping others fight their own battles.
Robert Croom proudly served his country.
"I am a Vietnam veteran. I served from '68 to '69," Croom said.
At just 19 years old, that time shaped his view of the world.
"I found myself in a combat situation with a lot of fear, a lot of death and struggles going on," he said.
The battle didn't stop when he came home. He struggled with substance abuse.
"I had periods of my life when I just didn't think I had any value to anyone. A lot of times, it's not just what we think about ourselves. We feel like we are hurting someone else, so we feel like it would be better for us not to be around," Croom explained. "Several times, I tried to overdose on drugs, hoping I would never wake up."
After that, Croom was in and out of rehabilitation programs. He says he finally got clean at age 46, when he got treatment at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
Croom was diagnosed with PTSD, but he didn't let that stop him. Two decades later, he's a peer support specialist at the Cleveland VA.
"I have a lot of gratitude for the fact that I'm still here and I'm able to help veterans here today," Croom said.
A lot of those veterans struggling with PTSD and depression are Vietnam veterans like himself. The VA reports the highest rates of suicide and attempted suicide is by veterans 65 to 80 years old.
"These older gentlemen get very depressed. They see nothing in front of them. They start losing their physical capabilities, having a lot of health problems. And many end up so depressed that they end up killing themselves," said Dr. Edgardo Padin-Rivera, chief psychologist at the Cleveland VA.
He says the factors surrounding veteran suicides are not just combat related.
"We see divorce. We see separation. We see job loss. We see financial or legal issues," Padin-Rivera said.
While older veterans may be most at risk for suicide, the VA is seeing more veterans from 19 to 28 years old who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan in need of help.
Overall, Dr. Padin-Rivera says veterans are 42 percent more likely to commit or attempt suicide.
"People see suicide as a problem among veterans. But actually, it's a solution, and it's the final solution for a lot of people who cannot see anything going on in their lives beyond death," he said.
The problem isn't easy to track. A widely cited statistic from the VA's Suicide Data Report of 2012, states 18 to 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
Many officials say that statistic needs more context.
"People should know that it's a statistical average, which means that we don't have a good handle on the actual total number veterans that commit suicide on a daily basis," Padin-Rivera explained.
He says that number is a sample from 23 states that keep veteran suicide records. But the actual number of veterans committing suicide each day could be higher or lower.
"The number is in controversy because we don't really have a good feel for many veterans who either die by accident or intentional accident. So a drug overdose may actually sometimes be an intentional overdose," Padin-Rivera said.
The Cleveland VA says every veteran that comes in for help gets a suicide risk assessment. The medical center also has a suicide prevention coordinator on site who works with a team of employees to reach out to veterans.
But their most powerful weapon against suicide might be veterans, like Robert Croom, whose own story inspires other veterans to give themselves another chance.
"A lot of veterans coming home feel like they are lost. They've been through multiple deployments. Their thought pattern is tunneled vision and they think a lot of people don't care. But we are here to help," Croom said.
The VA operates a 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line for veterans and their families. It's free and confidential, just call 1-800-273-8255. You can also send a text message to 838255 to connect with someone from the VA.
We're told the national hotline alerts the closest VA to get a suicide prevention coordinator in contact with that veteran within 24 hours. Click here for more information on the hotline and how to spot the warning signs of suicide.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act into law. Its mission is to help veterans get the timely and effective mental health care they need.
It aims to:
- Increase access to mental health care and resources for veterans
- Recruit more psychiatry students to the VA
- Boost VA accountability with annual evaluations of suicide prevention programs.