Operation Deep Dive: A local nonprofit is on a mission to understand why so many veterans commit suicide

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A new study is underway in the Upstate to curb the growing rate of suicides among military veterans.

The latest figures released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs shows that about 20 veterans commit suicide every day. That’s nearly twice the suicide rate among Americans who did not serve in the military. And in South Carolina, the suicide rate for veterans was 29.7 percent in 2016, as compared with 27.2 percent in 2014. 

In order to understand and address the problem locally, Greenville-based Upstate Warrior Solution has joined forces with America’s Warrior Partnership, a nonprofit veterans services group, to participate in Operation Deep Dive, a community-based veteran suicide prevention study.

Funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the study is the first of its kind to examine the community-level factors that lead to suicide and self-harm among veterans, an area that has been generalized in past studies, according to Leah Taylor, manager of Operation Deep Dive at America’s Warrior Partnership.

Taylor said the study is being conducted in 14 communities nationwide by America’s Warrior Partnership and researchers from the University of Alabama. Upstate Warrior Solution is helping to direct the study within the Greenville area.

Other communities being targeted in the study include Charleston; Atlanta; Orange County, California; Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis; the Panhandle region of Florida; Cincinnati; Syracuse, New York; Mobile, Alabama; Houston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Indianapolis; and Las Vegas.  

Jim Lorraine, president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership, said the overarching goal of the study is to identify the risk factors that lead to suicide within veteran communities, as well as to guide the development of programs to reduce self-harm among veterans.

“With each organization bringing its own areas of expertise and data, we can make a difference in the lives of our nation’s warriors, particularly the most vulnerable veterans,” Lorraine said in a news release.

Upstate Warrior Solution and other organizations participating in Operation Deep Dive are responsible for leading the creation of a “Community Action Team,” which consists of local medical examiners, coroners, veterans-serving organizations, civic leaders, and veterans and their families and caregivers, according to Taylor. These teams will work with researchers at the University of Alabama to understand the cultural and geographical attributes unique to the region as they investigate local cases of suicide.

The first phase of Operation Deep Dive is a five-year retrospective investigation of the impact of less-than-honorable discharges on veteran suicides and suspected suicides, as well as the differences in suicide rates between those who received and did not receive support services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Taylor.

The second phase will incorporate findings from the first phase into a three-year study that will include input from medical examiners, mental health experts, veterans and family members, and the community to conduct a “sociocultural autopsy” of all new or suspected suicides in the study’s targeted communities.

Researchers will then analyze individualized data that’s gathered by the Community Action Teams and a chronology of each veteran’s last year of life to identify trends, patterns, and potential indicators of suicide. They will also review data from national sources, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and United Way Worldwide.

Operation Deep Dive will focus on veterans from all services, genders, and lifespans, particularly female veterans, who are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women, according to Taylor.

Taylor said previous research about veteran suicides has generalized the indicators of suicide without a focus on the role the community may play.

Operation Deep Dive, however, will help partnering organizations explore how community context and engagement with local veterans affect the prevention of suicides, ultimately helping guide the development of proactive prevention and outreach programs.

Charlie Hall, executive director of Upstate Warrior Solution, said his organization was “honored” to be asked to help with Operation Deep Dive.

Founded in 2012, Upstate Warrior Solution aims “to guide veterans through the process of self-empowerment by connecting them with resources and opportunities as well as inspiring the community to embrace them as valued neighbors and friends.”

Today, Upstate Warrior Solution has offices in five counties, including Spartanburg and Clemson, and offers a wide variety of services for military veterans, including a six-month paid internship program for disabled veterans to learn the skills they need to excel in their professional and personal lives. The organization, which became an affiliate of America’s Warrior Partnership in 2014, has maintained relationships with more than 5,000 veterans, including 1,390 pre-9/11 veterans and 3,648 post-9/11 veterans.

Hall, a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and current member of the Marine Corps Reserve, said Upstate Warrior Solution works with about 100 new veterans and their family members each month. Unfortunately, though, about four to five of the organization’s veterans have taken their own life every year since it was founded.

“We see veteran suicide pretty frequently,” Hall explained during a recent interview with the Greenville Journal. “It’s usually the guy or girl who appear to be fine the day before, hanging out with family. There’s no red flags. So when we have the opportunity to be involved in a national study like Operation Deep Dive, we jump right on it.”

For more information, visit www.upstatewarriorsolution.org.

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