Twenty a Day: The Hidden Epidemic of Veteran Suicides

By Megan Castellano, MPA

As Co-Chair of the Putnam County Suicide Prevention Task Force, I have read with great interest over the past months the many articles raising awareness about suicide. I applaud those media outlets that have included prevention resources as part of their coverage of the recent high profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Through my work, I am keenly aware that celebrity or high profile suicides receive more media attention. This can be painful for others who have lost loved ones to suicide and feel that they are alone in their suffering and grief not only as a result of the loss of their loved one, but also because of the stigma that still surrounds suicide. Conversely, I am certain there is tremendous suffering for the families and loved ones impacted by high profile suicides as they wish they could have more privacy to cope with their grief. I am sympathetic to each scenario.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege of working with Veterans through the Private First Class Joseph P. Dwyer Vet2Vet program. My colleagues and I recently discussed the fact that statistically speaking, twenty Veterans die each day by suicide, a far greater number than those who die in combat. That is 7,300 Veterans each year. The purpose of this article is not to place a higher value on anyone’s life, each and every life matters.  One suicide is too many, our goal is zero suicides.  The purpose of this article is to raise awareness about the epidemic of Veteran suicides.  It is my hope that people reading this, both Veterans and those who love them, will know that they are not alone and that help and hope are a phone call away.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) — press 1 for Veterans — offers help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Additionally, The PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Program is another support and resource.  The Dwyer Program is named for Private First Class Joseph P. Dwyer, a combat medic who served in Iraq and like many Veterans, after returning home, suffered post-traumatic stress. In 2008, PFC Dwyer died of an accidental overdose, finally succumbing to the demons he battled for years. Sadly, this is all too common for many Veterans.

After PFC Dwyer’s death, Long Island Senator and fellow Iraqi Veteran, Lee Zeldin, secured funding for the first peer to peer program in PFC Dwyer’s name where Veterans could support other Veterans, known as Vet2Vet.  According to those who knew PFC Dwyer best, the one thing that did seem to help him was peer counseling from a fellow Veteran. While the Dwyer program began in Suffolk County, in the years since PFC Dwyer’s death, funding for Vet2Vet programs has expanded and enabled counties across the state to develop local programs that meet the needs of local Veterans and their families.  Today, there are 16 Dwyer programs in New York State, including Putnam, Westchester, Orange, Rockland and Dutchess Counties.  While they are not a crisis hotline, all have staff ready, willing and able to support either directly or by making a “warm hand-off” referral based on each individual or family’s needs.

While Vet2Vet is not a clinical treatment program, the strong bonds that are formed provide support that reaches beyond a chair in a psychiatrist office or a weekly therapy appointment; the program is not dictated by insurance coverage, or lack thereof.  All of the services are free of charge and independent of the VA and the “system,” often barriers to care. Our Putnam Vet2Vet program provides outreach, support groups, and family events to help Veterans and their families connect with the community and each other.

The teachable moment is this….let’s move 20 to zero….zero Veteran suicides, zero suicides.  It would be my hope that anyone reading this who is feeling suicidal, or has felt suicidal, would reach out by calling the 24- hour talk line. If you are a Veteran or a family member and you feel like you and/or your loved one are struggling, reach out to your local PFC Dwyer Vet2Vet program to learn what they have to offer.  Thank you for your service, and remember that you are not alone!


Megan Castellano is the Executive Director of the Mental Health Association in Putnam County, Inc., an affiliate of CoveCare Center.