Websites become tool for stopping veteran suicides

MGN Online
Saturday, September 21, 2013 - 10:58am

At 5:49 p.m. on a January day, Pvt. Jordan DuBois posted on his Facebook page: "I'm goin to kill myself this is my last post ... miss u all..."

One hour and 20 minutes later, DuBois' speeding truck slammed into a light pole and a bus bench in Colorado Springs.

Several people who saw the post in early 2012 tried to talk him out of doing anything rash. They failed. The Fort Carson soldier was dead.

But in recent months, Facebook has become an important tool in tackling an alarming number of military suicides. The social networking site has helped shed light on a serious problem plaguing service members and veterans. It has acted as friend and counselor to weary soldiers and played a key role in reducing the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress, depression and mental illness.

Social media have helped blur the lines between private and public. What used to be intensely personal affairs are now out there for the world to see. That's not always a good thing, as evidenced by the August posting of a man who police say shot and killed his wife in Miami and then uploaded the shocking image to Facebook.

But mental health professionals say Facebook, which is at once deeply personal and removed enough from actual human interaction that makes it a safe place to air despondent thoughts and inclinations, can be of use in saving lives and keeping alive the memory of those who are gone. Many younger service members have grown up in the age of the Internet and are used to sharing their inner selves on social media.

With more than a billion users worldwide, the social network acknowledges its power. Public Relations Manager Brandon Lepow says that power can be used to prevent deaths. The company lists suicide hot lines and has instructions on how to report suicidal content on its help page. It has also partnered with organizations on suicide prevention and now more specifically, on military suicide prevention.

"Facebook," says Lepow, "has a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to save lives and put people in touch with those who can help them best."

Ground level

"Sweat dries. Blood clots. Bones heal. Suck it up Buttercup." Words to live by from a drill sergeant.

It's the kind of stuff Daniel Caddy posted on a Facebook page he started last year. Awesome S**t My Drill Sergeant Said is a collection of expletive-laden military jokes Caddy and his buddies sent around after basic training. Its "likes" have exploded to more than 234,000 today.

The page was meant to be funny and tells visitors lacking a sense of humor to "execute an about face and be gone." But on an October night last year, it took on dark undertones.

Caddy, a National Guard staff sergeant who spent a year clearing mines in Afghanistan, was about to fall asleep at his San Francisco home when he received a disturbing message. It was from a fellow Guardsman who said a soldier friend was contemplating suicide. "I'm certain he's going to kill himself," the text message said. He sent Caddy a screen shot of his friend's Facebook post.

It sent shivers through Caddy, the kind of fluttery feeling you get when you know something terrible is about to happen. Immediately, he posted a plea for help on the drill sergeant Facebook page:

"TROOP IN TROUBLE: We just received a request for help from a troop that turned to us in desperation because it is the middle of the night and no one in the chain of command is picking up the phone and he sincerely believes his battle (buddy) is planning to take his own life tonight. I'm out of bed on full alert and am waking up our Admin staff as well as our Network. We need your help as this develops.

"If you are in or near Kingsport, TN or know a battle that is, email me ASAP at hmfic@asmdss.com. Please share this s**t so as I get more details we have a large reach able to respond and hopefully intercede. If we lose one, that is one too many. Not f*****g around here."

Within minutes, the page lit up with comments, support and offers to help find the suicidal soldier. "We can't afford to lose another one," said one post.

Caddy received several hundred e-mails within the first five minutes from schools, teachers, phone company representatives and hostage negotiators who responded to the crisis as though that soldier was their own son. Some people jumped in their cars and began driving toward Kingsport.

Volunteers hit the ground. The soldier's exact location was pinged through his cell phone.

The harrowing five-hour saga unfolded on Caddy's Facebook page, with 5,000 people glued to their screens. They refused to go to bed without knowing that the soldier in distress was OK.

In the end, Caddy was able to find the soldier's unit commanders, and they connected with him, alone in his apartment in a vast complex. He felt isolated and disconnected, like so many combat veterans feel. He had been drinking heavily. But he was alive.

In his mind, Caddy heard a collective exhale. "We were able to achieve a miracle via social media," he says.

After that, Caddy learned of more cases of potential soldier suicides on Facebook. He realized the power of a medium that instantly allowed combat veterans to connect with each other. He also realized that he needed to reach soldiers long before they came to the point of wanting to end it all. Otherwise, it was like an emergency responder using a defibrillator to revive a heart attack patient but then never checking on the heart condition that caused it.

He launched Battle in Distress, a crisis response team that makes immediate contact with soldiers going through financial difficulties, marital friction, depression and other problems. They communicate resources that are available to soldiers in crisis on social media platforms and connect them with peers in their own communities.

"It's about saying, 'Hey, you got a lot going on, brother. Here are people who can help you,' " Caddy says.

Between January and April of this year, Battle in Distress intervened in 250 cases; 67 were suicidal soldiers.

But just one life saved means success for Caddy.

"Facebook has a huge potential to identify commonalities between war fighters," he says. "It also has the power to rip out the limitations of physical boundaries, like a base. Somebody can be on the other side of the country, but when the call goes out, I can reach out to them."

Caddy is convinced the only way to stem the tide of military suicides is when soldiers themselves become accountable.

"It starts," he says, "with us on the ground level."

It's in the language

Chris Poulin also wanted to use the power of Facebook to prevent military suicides. He'd always been interested in using language to predict events, from political outcomes to economic letdowns.

He points to the language of Norway mass shooter Anders Brevik, which was filled with clues that he was radicalized enough to act violently.

Poulin began thinking of a friend who had taken his own life. He had left digital breadcrumbs that he was having problems. His friends and family wished they had picked up on the signs. For them, it was too late.

How could he marry predictive linguistics with technology to identify service members and veterans at risk? Poulin approached Facebook, the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration. They are now partners in the newly launched Durkheim Project, named after pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who studied suicide. The project targets veterans, who are killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day, according to the VA.

It works this way: Veterans opt into the Durkheim Project, which installs an app on their devices and monitors their conversations and posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. A database at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth keeps track of locations and text messages.

Yes, it's a bit Big Brother. That's why veterans have to agree to the terms of the program.

"We are trying to push the boundaries on data privacy and get people to think about the issues," Poulin says, though he knows that may not sit well in the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden's NSA leaks. "There is no spying without your consent. You can opt out whenever you want.

"It's certainly true that suicide is an intensely private affair," he says. "They may not want to sign up, and we can't force them to. Or they may sign up when they feel fine, but years down, they might descend into darkness."

Poulin said monitors look for expressions of hopelessness or comments about sleeplessness or, feeling isolated. "People would be better off without me": That's a statement that will raise red flags.

At that point, a veteran's clinician will be alerted.

But a huge number of veterans do not seek counseling, so the Durkheim Project asks participants to name a buddy who can be called in an hour of need.

"If they have no one designated, we will at least say something positive to them," Poulin says.

Eventually, Poulin would like to see the Durkheim Project do interventions, but right now, he doesn't have the funding for it.

Fifty people have opted in. Poulin's target is 100,000. Facebook is participating in recruiting by reaching out to military groups and posting nonprofit ads.

"But I don't think we have to hit our target to be useful," he says.

Craig Bryan, a psychologist who advised Poulin's team for the Durkheim Project, says he expects that enough people will opt in to make it a success.

"We have found that military personnel and veterans tend to be very willing to participate," Bryan says. "The reason for that is the collectivist identity. Very distressed service members tend to volunteer for this kind of thing. Their thinking is that 'even if it doesn't help me, maybe it will help others in the future.' "

Few people actually ever say "I'm going to kill myself." In many cases, after a suicide, families and friends point to things the person wrote or said that they feel were perhaps indicators of trouble.

"But after the fact is not good enough," Bryan says.

Bryan says social media provide forums for people to talk about crisis situations and connect with people in ways that were not previously possible.

And that, says Bryan, is a great protective measure.

Good and bad

Public health researcher Dr. Joseph A. Boscarino thinks Facebook posts can be therapeutic for those who are suffering. It has been proved, he says, that talking about traumatic events is a first step toward recovery, and for some, it may be easier to talk on Facebook.

But Boscarino, a Vietnam veteran, worries that the Facebook environment is so open and uncontrolled that the potential for a negative reaction is very real.

"It can go both ways, obviously," he says. "There could be a negative side if the victims are fragile. It could push them in the wrong direction."

What if someone writes a post on a suicidal soldier's page, "You signed up for war fighting, not babysitting"?

"People who are hard-core militarists or pacifists may not be that sympathetic," says Boscarino, who did a tour of Vietnam in 1965 and knows first-hand what it was like to face ugliness from the public.

"Rejection is hard to take. It was in Vietnam. And it is now," he says.

But he recognizes the potential for Facebook and says he hopes people figure out how to use it beneficially for service members and their families.

Alice Franks, who heads the National Alliance to End Veteran Suicide, calls Facebook sites for military suicides wretched but worthy clubs.

"Depending upon what a survivor is seeking, these sites can help create connectivity for a community of survivors who may not reach each other under other circumstances," she says.

The group attempts to reach survivors who have progressed in their own grief to a point where they are ready and willing to move to action.

"Any tool," says Franks, "that causes dialogue to happen around the concern of veteran/military suicide is good."

Frantic search

On July 18, Erik Jorgensen, 26, texted his mom. He said he was a "waste of oxygen on this Earth."

And then he went missing.

Cindy Crow began driving from her home in California to Boise, Idaho, where her son was stationed with the Army National Guard. Before that, he'd spent a year as an Army private clearing roads laced with makeshift bombs in Afghanistan.

Crow knew that her son suffered from post-traumatic stress. She knew that she had to get to Idaho before something terrible happened.

As people began looking for Jorgensen, his sister started a Facebook page to help.

A photo of Erik was posted; he was described as 6 feet 1 inches tall and 240 pounds. He had dark blond/light brown hair and blue eyes. He had PTSD and did not have his medication with him. No one knew what clothes he was wearing that day, but he was driving his jacked-up white Dodge Ram with black grilles and rims. License plate number: S58329.

They asked anyone who spotted Jorgensen to call the Boise police department immediately.

The post was shared instantly by people all across America. Some asked what unit he was with and where he was last seen. Others just wrote messages of support and love for Jorgensen's family.

Staff Sgt. Maggie Haswell of Boise came across the Facebook page early Saturday morning. Jorgensen had been missing for two days.

"What the hell," Haswell thought. "This is happening right here."

She didn't know Jorgensen but volunteered to be the family's point of contact and lead the search efforts. "You never leave a man behind," she says of the Army creed.

She also knew that PTSD is not always taken as seriously as it should be.

A missing soldier with PTSD, she says, should be treated like a missing child. Authorities need to act immediately.

"For all those wanting to help search ... The command center is located at the corner of Hwy 21 and Federal way in the Albertsons Parking lot," the Jorgenson family's Facebook page said. "Please we need all the help we can get. We've got some good leads just need the bodies to chase them down! Please people help us out!"

Said another: "Erik was spotted yesterday afternoon on the middle fork of Boise River in the Atlanta, IDAHO area and we now need as many volunteers as available to blanket the area!"

Those who couldn't physically get out there to help wrote words of comfort for Jorgenson's family. They hoped Erik would be found alive.

He wasn't.

Jorgensen had driven to the National Guard training facility and shot himself.

The news traveled quickly via Facebook, where Crow posted a message for her son.

"It is with the greatest sadness of our life to have to share that our sweet boy spread his wings and flew to God's protective arms where the sun always shines and there is no pain. God keep my baby protected until we meet again. God bless all our soldiers who give so much and ask for nothing in return. Save them all from the pain of war and bring them home to their families. Good night my angel I'll see you soon, Mommy"

Haswell says the Facebook page helped with search efforts.

"It helped gather a lot of people. It helped get his face out there. It helped to get the word out on PTSD," she says.

And it was a great source of comfort for the family at the moment that their worries turned to utter grief.

Relationship: It's complicated

At first, Blake McAlpine's Facebook page befits an Army guy. It says he likes the movie "Black Hawk Down" and the television series "Band of Brothers." His cover photo shows him with his son, who is wearing his father's old patrol cap.

In a post, he writes that he misses his son "like crazy and Iraq sucks still." Another announces his engagement on June 8, 2009. Under information about himself, it says: "In a complicated relationship."

After February 4 this year, the posts on his page have mostly been written by his wife, Kimberly. They reflect her sorrow and will to carry on in a very public way.

McAlpine returned from Iraq with nightmares. He became addicted to drugs, alcohol. He lost his job. He watched porn on his computer. He shot the family's pet pit bull. And then in early February, he picked up his Colt .45 and tried to force Kimberly to pull the trigger. When she managed to get away, he shot himself.

She buried her husband and took to Facebook, writing on his page as a way to cope.

"I know there is no Facebook in heaven, but I feel like he knows," she says. "I love my husband. I love him with all my heart. When I talk to him daily, everything is OK."

On June 28, she posted photos of their son, Jackson, now over 2 years old.

"He's getting so big and looking more like his daddy everyday."

A few days before that, she wrote:

"All the good memories outweigh the bad.... I love u always honey."

Recently, she posted: "I wish heaven had a phone so I could hear your voice."

When she writes on his page, she says, it feels like spending time with him.

She doesn't know any of his passwords anymore -- he changed them all during his struggle with PTSD -- so she cannot turn on privacy settings to make the posts visible only to friends.

"I don't care if other people see it. Everyone knows I love my husband," she says. "People think I'm crazy for still writing to him. I'm not going to say I'm not."

Facebook helps her cope. It is like a friend who is always there.

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