It is a private moment, one where pain, indecision, exhaustion, and uncertainty live. It is often a surprise to find oneself here, even to the Veteran, but this scene is likely something they had already imagined, even fantasized about. The scales need to tip, in one direction or the other, but they will tip, and they will decide whether to keep fighting or give in to the fight.Although the story of the United States Veteran is one of strength, fortitude, and resilience, they are humans first and foremost; and all humans can get tired.
The Problem with Traditional "Resources"
22 per day. 20 per day. The exact number does not matter. What matters is that a disproportionately high number of Veterans are taking their own lives; ironically sometimes after returning home from fighting to stay alive in a war zone. The reasons for this are complex and multifactorial, and not entirely understood. Mental health professionals, researchers, and suicide prevention experts have developed a number of important tools to mitigate suicide attempts; development of the Veteran’s Crisis Line, personalized safety plans, and outreach efforts by many civilian- and Veteran-driven organizations have certainly saved lives.For some, however, these resources are bypassed or remain un-accessed, and are therefore not enough.Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of suicide attempts by service members involve firearms - approximately 75% of them. Unfortunately, these attempts are frequently successful and irreversible. For this reason, mental health professionals are educated to assess for “access to lethal means,” or in other words, to try to determine through conversation one’s access to the means by which he would try to end his life.In the case of firearms, therapists are accustomed to providing education regarding the dangerousness of having suicidal thoughts and access to a gun, and recommending that he restrict his access to them until the crisis passes. This is much like handing your car keys to a friend if you’ve had too much to drink: you are not giving up your car or your right to drive permanently, but just until it is safe to drive again.
A New Type of Gun Safety
As a psychologist working with Veterans diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, work for which I am incredibly honored and privileged, I find myself inside this conversation quite often. Despite good rapport with my patients and an environment of trust, frequently, they are not willing to hand their firearms to someone temporarily, and a new conversation must begin.We discuss basics such as separating the firearm and the ammo, or considering use of a fingerprint safe. Any and all of these add a bit more protection between the suicidal thought and the action, but they still make me admittedly nervous if the risk of self-harm is significant. In situations such as these, I ask my patients if they will consider rubber-banding a personally-meaningful photograph of something that keeps them fighting, even during the hardest times, around their firearm.My patients are quite typically agreeable to this, share that they think it would be effective, and almost always follow through. Sometimes, they return with a photograph they snapped on their cell phone to show as proof. They have chosen images of children, parents, dogs, battle buddies, and religious icons. The content of the image is not important– the purpose is. The hope is that this image will prompt the individual to THINK TWICE about harming themselves, should they have that firearm within reach.Given that approximately 71% of suicide attempts occur within just one hour of the decision and 25% within just FIVE MINUTES, having something to intervene at the crucial, incredibly dangerous time is imperative, and until now, lacking.
"You might be onto something."
I was talking with a colleague and friend of mine, a Marine Gunnery Sergeant with over twenty years in the Corps, about the challenges faced by many returning Veterans. We discussed the high rate of suicide and the drive to try to make a difference. I shared with him that, for many of my patients, the recommendation to wrap their firearm in a meaningful photograph has been effective in distracting them from suicidal thoughts. He said, “You might be onto something. You should really do something with that.”When a Marine tells you to do something, you do it…so I did.I began to consult with many Veteran friends, attorneys, suicide prevention experts, researchers, fellow psychologists, judges, a homicide detective, firearms enthusiasts, business people, and more Veterans. With each conversation came more encouragement to continue.From day one, it was clear that the most important goal would be to tackle this project from a Veteran-centric perspective. Veterans have great ideas about what will help to confront this problem, and we need to include them in the solution. While restricting access to firearms temporarily is clearly the safest thing an individual can do to protect himself from using a firearm to attempt suicide (a truth with which we agree and do not want to replace), the reality is that firearms are a part of the military culture, and often a part of one’s identity. Honoring and understanding this perspective and reality is essential to solving this problem. When one decides that they are not willing to part ways with their firearm, I believe the conversation needs to continue, not end.
In the process of meeting new Veterans and networking, I met Ryan Baudhuin, or “Buddha,” as he is known to those closest to him. A United States Infantry Marine with a combat deployment to Iraq, he recently turned away from the business world and creatively and effectively married his two passions - hunting and photography. He took a leap and is now a successful and insanely talented hunting guide, wildlife photographer, and videographer.While talking with him one day about ways to potentially place individualized photographs on guns, he offered to teach me about firearms and took me to the range. My knowledge about guns was certainly lacking at this point, which made it more challenging to navigate conversations about developing our product. After I was able to stop shaking with a pistol in my hand, honestly trying to distract myself from images of Veterans I have lost or almost lost to suicide, I became more confident and even took a few more trips to the range. I became more comfortable handling them, and developed a better understanding of, and greater respect for, firearms.Traveling outside of my comfort zone was, well, uncomfortable. But it was necessary. If we, as a society of concerned citizens, want to be a part of the solution, we need to understand this problem from a reality-based perspective. Talking about suicide is uncomfortable. Imagining the details of those painful moments when one is considering “ending it all” is uncomfortable. Too bad. One cannot solve a problem by avoiding its most difficult aspects.Equipped with a better understanding of firearms, I became more effective in conversations regarding product development and program implementation. After doing a great deal of research and considering how to make our product most attractive and effective, I stumbled upon the website for GunSkins®.
GunSkins® is a leader in high-quality, do-it-yourself vinyl adhesive wraps for firearms protection and camouflage. Their product looks great, performs well, is simple to install, is removable without leaving a residue, and is highly regarded in the firearms world. I contacted GunSkins® and talked directly with the owner, Kevin Lyon. After learning of our mission, he was immediately on board and asked what he could do to help.With his assistance and the input of Veterans, we chose five camouflage patterns and Kevin and his team developed a pistol kit specifically for Cover Me Veterans that consists of a left and right handgrip skin, and three squares for the bottom of three separate pistol magazines. Our logo is embedded in each of the patterns, and we hope that our logo becomes recognizable nationally as a prompt to remember “Who covers you, and who needs you to cover them.”When we receive an order, if a photo upload is not included with the order, we send the kit to the service member right away. If a photograph has been uploaded, we have this image printed on a high-quality, durable 1” vinyl sticker and then add this photograph to the Cover Me Veterans GunSkins® kit. GunSkins® donated a number of these kits to our organization, and they sell them to us at cost, with no financial benefit to them. They have been a phenomenal partner.
Making it available
It is an ongoing goal of our organization to ensure that we are able to offer our service to interested service members completely free of charge, and that we eliminate any roadblocks to obtaining the product. Therefore, we operate solely on donations; our entire staff payroll budget for the year is $1.00 total.Since we began sending orders in July of 2016, we have sent orders throughout the entire United States, partnered with the National Guard, and started conversations with the firearms industry. The feedback from both the Veteran and the civilian community has been overwhelmingly positive, and Veterans appreciate the practical and Veteran-centric nature of the concept.When we began this project, we knew that we might never hear of a successful intervention prompted by our product given the sensitive nature of the topic, but we have received a few already. We continue to have great confidence in the potential for this project to save lives, and we will continue to solicit and welcome feedback from the Veteran community.During those painful, seemingly hopeless, private moments when life hangs in the balance, if a service member can hold onto those things in life that are worth fighting for, he might put the gun down and live another day. Every day. We must continue to work together as a community of grateful and committed citizens so that Veterans do not find themselves in this dangerous and lonely spot.In addition to consulting (incredibly important) research, statistics, and theories, we must continue asking OUR VETERANS, the experts of themselves, what they believe might be most helpful. There is not one answer, but rather many pieces to this puzzle, that when placed together, create a hopeful picture.Interested service members can visit our website at www.CoverMeVeterans.org to place an order for their GunSkins® kit with an optional personalized photograph completely free of charge.