Monster: A Veteran Confronts Suicide [VIDEO]
"Suicide. It's always in the backs of peoples minds," Keith Smith said.
"Nobody really wants to deal with it straight on because it's kind of a touchy subject, said Smith, who served two deployments with the Wyoming Army National Guard in Iraq.
The "22" in the 22Kill organization's name refers to the number of veterans who kill themselves each day. One active service member commits suicide daily, Smith said. "You're looking at 8,000 (suicides) or better by the end of the year."
The organization, which has been growing in Wyoming, is designed to raise awareness and prevent suicide among veterans through events such as motorcycle runs, he said. "For me, for vets, especially the best people to talk to is other vets. It's easier to talk to somebody's that's been there, done it, dealt with it, or knows how to deal with it."
Smith grew up in Casper, joined the Guard in 2005, was deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007, and then again in 2009-2010.
Field artillery was his military occupational specialty, but his squad did more as infantry in training the Iraqi police and conducting raids.
"The whole reason I joined was so that I could go," Smith said. "I didn't go for any of the school or anything like that. I went because I wanted to go over."
Smith came back, and everything seemed fine for a while, then it didn't, he said. "People are really good at covering it up."
He had his own ways of dealing with life after deployment, sank into a bottle, and saw his work and relationships suffer, he said. "The more you drink, the more it goes away, you don't have to worry about it until you wake up."
Discussions about suicide are suppressed by the pomp and circumstance when groups of soldiers come home and they're greeted by hordes of family members, politicians and speeches.
"Everybody's excited for their loved ones to be home," Smith said.
Smith wasn't overtly suicidal, but he joined a lot of other vets in denying their depression because of the pride and kinship they developed as soldiers, he said. "Nobody wants to ask for help because we're all too proud in a sense to ask for help. People think it's a sign of weakness."
A few years ago, he discovered 22Kill.
Smith agrees that it's not a happy name.
"It's bold. It's in your face. You push it," he said. "A lot of the people we've met who are interested in it."
The organization sells shirts and caps to promote its cause.
But its unique products are the tungsten or titanium "Honor Rings" designed to be worn on the index finger -- the trigger finger.
The ring not only raises awareness for veterans -- non-veterans can buy them, too -- about the crisis of suicide, it also has functioned as the reminder of last resort if a vet is considering pulling the trigger on himself or herself, Smith said.
22Kill also has built a network of support, Smith said. "I've had phone calls, two, three o'clock in the morning from people just having a rough time. They're not necessarily suicidal, but they need somebody to talk to."
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Casper resident Lance Neiberger lost his son to suicide nine years ago. He recently told K2 Radio suicide is like a monster in the closet that has power over us as long we don’t want to deal with it. “But if we can open that closet door and see that there’s something there that can be dealt with, then that monster doesn’t hold the power that it used to.”
K2 Radio will talk to others who have grappled with suicide and why it affects our communities and state so deeply.
And we will look what has and is being done to identify and tame this monster among us.