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News 13 Investigates: Fighting Veteran Suicide

It's a staggering statistic: more veterans are dying from suicide than on the battlefield. (Photo credit: Patty Best)

It's a staggering statistic: more veterans are dying from suicide than on the battlefield.

That tragic fact is tearing apart families right here in Western North Carolina.

News 13 talked with several families whose loved ones have taken their own lives.

They believe more could be done to fight the problem.

DEMANDING CHANGE

Sgt. Jared Best fought for our country for six years.

He survived an untold number of battles and two tours overseas, before he took his own life in 2016.

He had returned home to Canton, and his brother says he'd struggled with transitioning back to normal life.

"It kind of just hit, had an overwhelming moment, about everything he had lost," said Best.

Aaron Best is also a veteran, and knows all too well the inner battles the veterans often face.

He says transitioning from a war zone to a safe zone is extremely difficult.

"That sense of pride that you get is so strong that it causes more mental anguish when you're out and not a part of it," said Best.

Aaron best says he's watched countless soldiers, many good friends, die by suicide.

They'll fix this injury, but they won't fix the injury up here.

He believes the Department of Defense is to blame. He's pushing for a mandatory mental health screening before a service member is discharged.

"The army should have had something in place before he ever got out to help him understand what was going to happen," said Best.

Crystal Cochran agrees. Her husband also took his own life, while on active duty last Christmas Eve.

"He reached out for help, but I don't feel like he got what he deserved and I lot of our veterans don't," said Cochran.

It turns your life completely opposite down.

Crystal says her husband Justin had mental health issues from his service that weren't addressed.

"It's hard not to be angry, it's hard not to be angry because it happens 22 times a day, 22 times a day," said Cochran.

LOCAL LAWMAKER'S RESPONSE

Representative Patrick McHenry says it's a national tragedy that needs to be addressed.

"We've got to do better, we have to do better when it comes to veteran suicides, this is simply unacceptable," said Rep. McHenry.

He says both the Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs are responsible for protecting the people who protect us every day.

But he says change is coming.

Rep. McHenry says just last month, they passed the National Defense Authorization Act which requires mental health exams for active service members once a year.

"We created a yearly mental health screen for those in active duty. That will give the VA a better baseline to work with for those out of the military now," said Rep. McHenry.

NEW PROGRAMS TO FIX THE CRISIS

The Department of Defense says they are actively working to find new ways to address the issue.

The 's most recent data shows that 249 veterans in North Carolina committed suicide in 2014.

A spokesperson says last month they signed an agreement with veterans affairs to form a team to address the issue and both agencies have signed an order to redesign the transition assistance program.

"The period of transition 90 days following separation from the military is known to be a time of increased risk for suicide-related behavior. The Defense Suicide Prevention Office is partnered closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs to effectively address this challenging time for our Service members, Veterans, and their families. In November, the DoD and VA signed a memorandum of agreement formalizing the Departments' joint commitment to suicide prevention. From that MOA, a strategic decision team working group is formed to pioneer innovation solutions addressing this challenge," said Laura Ochoa.

Ochoa also said most veterans who die by suicide do not have a previous mental health diagnosis.

But once a service member is discharged, they must then reach out on their own for help from Veteran Affairs.

Dr. Laura Tugman is the Assistant Chief of Mental Health Services at the VA in Asheville.

She says part of the problem is the stigma that prevents veterans from asking for help.

"We have worked very hard to build a recovery community here, we are trying very hard to eliminate any stigma around asking for mental health care," said Dr. Tugman.

She believes as long as veterans seek help, they have the resources and ability to take care of veterans mental health needs right away.

"A veteran can come into any place in this facility, ask for mental health, and we have same day access so veterans are seen within 24 hours of that request," said Dr. Tugman.

She says new programs, like Concierge for Care, aim to check up on veterans once they return home with a personal phone call.

"The goal is that we are going to contact 100 percent of the veterans who are recently separated from the military, and offer them assistance with eligibility, with services we offer," said Dr. Tugman.

The secretary of Veterans Affairs has made the fight against suicide his top priority.

Last month, Congress passed another bill to extend mental health services to veterans released under a less than honorable discharge.

Links for veteran resources:

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