Minnesota National Guard takes look at itself, makes changes after 12 soldier suicides

May 20, 2019 10:29 PM

The Minnesota National Guard is changing what it does to prevent suicides. It comes after a surge in deaths that made top commanders take a hard look at why they were happening.

After 12 young soldiers, all men and from all corners of Minnesota, died by suicide in less than a year-and-a-half, the Minnesota National Guard asked for help. 

PFC Joel Costa was one of the soldiers. He served with the Guard in Duluth for two years. Costa died on Feb. 12, 2017. His death shocked his family because he seemed happy.

"Basically, we got a call Saturday morning that he didn't show up for drill," said Costa's mother, Kelly Costa-Daly. "There was nothing necessarily out of normal, as far as we could see on the outside."

We first met Kelly in April on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol. She's involved with Operation 23 to Zero, which puts boots out to raise awareness about military suicides. Her son's boots were there.

Costa is one of the 12 Minnesota National Guard soldiers who took their lives between June 2016 and October 2017. What impact did it have on the National Guard community?

"Rocks them to the core, rocks them to the core," said Costa-Daly. "I have never seen soldiers in tears like I did then."

The motto of the Minnesota National Guard is "Always Ready." But, after a dozen deaths, it was ready to ask for help from the Minnesota Department of Health to prevent suicides.

Epidemiologist Melissa Heinen conducted fatality reviews of all 12 deaths.

"These are young men in sort of what you'd see as the prime of their life, right? They just had a whole future ahead," said Heinen.

Heinen turned back the clock, and looked at service records and police reports. She read obituaries and news stories.

"And we take that information, along with the death certificate, and we try to describe the week or two before, what were the circumstances that led to their death?"

The common perception with military suicides is the person might've done tours overseas, saw combat, suffered from PTSD or had problems transitioning at home. But, that's not what the fatality review found.

"No, I mean these are individuals who life was really difficult and they didn't have connections to hope or help, which we know are affective," said Heinen. "It was a lot of the life stressors that sort of add up and pile up."

Costa's family believes he was upset after learning a student loan for medical school was delayed and he'd have to wait for the money.

"So, I think that was a huge stressor for him," said his mom, Kelly.

She thinks he was too proud to ask his parents for help, or reach out to his superiors in the National Guard, fearing it might hurt his chance for a promotion.

Heinen's fatality review concluded the Minnesota National Guard has plenty of support services, but soldiers are reluctant ask for help. 

"We need to find ways to communicate better," said Heinen. "Especially, it appears, to our young adult males, that reaching out and asking and getting help is a good thing. It's not a weakness." Costa-Daly agrees.

"I think there needs to be a culture where a soldier can say, 'I'm not okay. It doesn't mean I'm never going to be okay, it just means I'm not okay right now and I need something,'" Costa-Daly said.

Lt. Colonel Dean Stulz is Deputy State Surgeon. His job is to make sure the 11,000 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard are healthy. Taking a look in the mirror wasn't easy.

"Certainly, it's difficult," said Stulz. "You want to not have to do that. But, more importantly, we felt it was extremely important to do just that."

Another recommendation from the fatality review is that the National Guard needed to have more conversations about mental illness. We asked Stulz if you can prevent suicide by talking about it.

"I think you can. You have to ask the question," Stulz said. "You have to listen to the answer and then you have to take action. If the answer you get back requires action, you need to be ready to do that."

In late October, the Minnesota National Guard made changes. Now, more counselors attend weekend drills. Soldiers meet in small groups to talk about mental health and wellness. Officers receive suicide intervention training. And, National Guard leaders look at soldiers differently.

"I think we need to think about them as soldiers, but really, first and foremost as persons; spouses and brothers and cousins and friends and neighbors," said Heinen.

There have been no deaths by suicide in the Minnesota National Guard since the changes were made 8 months ago.

"Gaining trust," said Stulz. "We need to give our leaders the opportunity and the time to sit down with soldiers and gain that trust. And I think it's worked well so far. You know, it's early, but the feedback we're getting from the soldiers is very positive."

Joel Costa didn't die in vain. In fact, the 12 young men who died by suicide have given the National Guard a new awareness. They were willing to put their lives on the line for the State of Minnesota. Now, the State of Minnesota is using the loss of their lives to save others.

The collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health will continue as they evaluate programs and services.

We all play a role in preventing suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or struggling, help them get care and find hope. You can make a difference. 

Connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, press 1 for veteran supported services.

Text MN to 741741 to get in touch with the Crisis Text Line.

Military OneSource can be reached by calling 1-800-342-9647.

Base Camp Hope is a faith-based organization, committed to educating veterans and the community about PTSD, using creative and alternative methods to build a strong support system for broken families in need of restoration. The number to call is 651-283-8459.

Vets Prevail offers online Counseling.

You will find information on substance abuse and addiction at DrugRehab.com.  

Veteran Support Outreach can be reached at 877-655-5116.

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Kevin Doran

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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