Medical, behavioral health, and social work experts with the Vermont National Guard said Thursday they consider the issue of suicide among Guard members and veterans a top priority, and have a wide variety of support and intervention programs in place to address suicide. "I think there needs to be more," said Col. Martin Lucenti, the Vermont Guard's state surgeon, describing resources to further address suicide and mental health concerns among active-duty Guard members and veterans.
Val and Greg Pallotta of Colchester, Vermont lost their son, Josh, to suicide on September 23. He was 25. "I know he's here; I know he's here in my heart," Val Pallotta told New England Cable News Thursday. "If he only knew how loved he was."
The Pallottas remembered Josh for his sense of humor, for his love of lacrosse as a teen, and for all the classmates and service members he befriended.
His parents said Josh battled post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries after serving combat duty in Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard, in a unit where two of his closest buddies were killed in an attack.
"He told me enough to know that what he saw over there was horrific for a 21-year-old guy," Greg Pallotta said. "It was to the point where the motivation to do anything was gone; all he wanted to do was lay in bed."
Greg Pallotta said his son was often reluctant to talk about how things were going for him. He told NECN Josh had trouble sleeping, and seemed angry at times. Josh Pallotta had been discharged from the military due to injury, his parents said. He struggled to find work after returning to Vermont, but did enjoy the job he found at a meat market, the Pallottas said. That job was due to come to an end because the business was closing, they added.
Thursday, Vermont Guard officials said they're looking at Josh Pallotta's death to see if more could have been done to help. A panel of medical personnel, mental and behavioral health clinicians, and social workers told reporters such a review is customary.
The group pointed to resources such as the South Burlington Vet Center run by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, that are available to veterans in Vermont. The Vet Center offers marital counseling, help with sleep issues, and other supports, a spokeswoman said.
The Vermont National Guard also has an outreach team that has visited many veterans at their homes or called them to gauge how they are doing since several long-term deployments. Most guard members have been reached by an outreach team member, though some are more receptive to the contact than others, officials noted.
Over the past decade, the Vermont Guard has served major missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. Guard members are assessed for mental readiness, using various tools. Emphasis is placed on the resiliency of personnel, with Guard officials describing the men and women of the Guard as the unit's greatest assets.
Col. Lucenti said another Guard suicide since Josh's is under investigation. Over the past decade, guard officials have tallied 10 suicides; nine from the Army side and one from the Air side, he said.
Lucenti estimated about 25 percent of service members returning from deployments have experienced some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. While that is a contributing risk factor to suicide, medical and behavioral health experts said there are many other risk factors, including stressors like employment, housing, and alcohol and drug abuse.
"A person's acute risk can change very, very quickly," said Laura Gibson, who directs mental health services for the VA clinic in Burlington.
According to numbers from the VA, about 22 veterans nationally end their own lives every day. That figure is comprised of vets of all ages. Specifically, the VA has seen an increase in suicide rates among young male veterans; ones ages 18 to 25.
Gibson said the biggest challenge with providing mental health services to veterans or active-duty service members who may be at risk for suicide is getting them to come forward. "We've worked to combat stigma and shame around seeking mental health treatment, but it's still alive and real," Gibson said.
Val Pallotta said she has started a fund in Josh's name, hoping to raise awareness of the national need to help veterans reacclimate to life after service. "I won't stop until there's an end to veterans' suicides," Pallotta told NECN, adding more community members need to be sensitive to veterans’ needs such as finding employment.
The national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. "Maybe one more person will reach out for help," Val Pallotta said.
For more information on crisis resources for veterans, visit this website.
Contributions in Josh's memory may be made in care of the Blue Star Mothers of Vermont, according to the obituary for Josh Pallotta. That address is P.O. Box 195, Bakersfield, VT, 05441.