Speaking Openly About Suicide Saves Lives
Warrior’s Story About Mental Health Struggles Inspires Veteran to Seek Help
Bravery is a word commonly used when it comes to military members – and deservedly so. The willingness to put your life on the line for your country is a special kind of sacrifice and requires a special kind of courage.
But bravery isn’t just something you show on the battlefield. And it’s not something that goes away when the war ends, or after hanging up the uniform. Sometimes, bravery is as subtle as sharing your story or picking up the phone and asking for help. Army veteran and wounded warrior Angie Lupe displayed her bravery in war and continues to do so by sharing her story.
Her actions in both situations have saved lives, including that of Army veteran Don Griner, who read Angie’s story and credits it for saving his life.
“Being able to actually talk about it is a big sign of strength and it helps others,” Angie said.
Angie wasn’t always in that frame of mind, though. After being injured during deployments to Iraq and struggling to make the transition back to civilian life, Angie thought about taking her life. She even attempted it.
“I was in a very, very dark place. I was mad. I was hurt. I was afraid. In those moments, the best scenario for me I thought was to leave this world,” Angie said.
That traumatic experience was a wake-up call for her. She decided to stay and fight.
She got involved with Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and its life-changing programs and services. She also found her voice and a new purpose – helping other veterans by sharing the darkest parts of her life, and how she made it out.
"I fought the battle of suicide and I won," Angie said. "I'm a survivor."
The Fight Abroad and the Fight at Home
Angie joined the Army Reserves in 1999. On Sept. 11, 2001, like many people, her life was forever changed. Her reserves unit was activated, and she was sent to Iraq.
When Angie initially joined the Army, she was in an administrative job. That changed when she got to the war zone in Iraq. She served as a gunner and combat lifesaver and saw plenty of combat. She would sometimes wake up without memories of the last mission and experience blackouts. She ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other neurological injuries.
Because she was in the Reserves, after she left Iraq, she was sent home and thrust back into a now-unfamiliar world.
“I didn’t know what to do, Angie said. “I started drinking. I barricaded myself in my bedroom and built a fort. I felt like I was still back there.”
She struggled. The TBI caused her to lose large parts of her memory. The neurological damage led her to use a wheelchair. The toll of her service left her with severe anxiety. Leaving the military so different from when she joined made her feel like she didn’t recognize herself, that she lost her purpose. She was worried she was becoming a burden to her loved ones.
She began to lose hope and attempted to end her life.
“I was so strong in the military before, and I didn’t want to be a burden on my family, so I thought that was the answer,” Angie said. “But it’s hard to hang yourself from a wheelchair and it didn’t work.”
After that, Angie made the courageous decision to take another path. She realized she needed to be there for her son, who has Down syndrome and was also going into surgery.
She made the decision to ask for help, and she asked more than once.
Angie’s mental health improved, but when she noticed her physical health deteriorating, her depression started to creep back in. It was then she was introduced to WWP’s Independence Program.
“That was the biggest game-changer, the epiphany, the everything-I-am-today moment,” Angie said.
WWP’s Independence Program provides innovative, long-term support to the most catastrophically wounded veterans. Angie was connected to music therapy, which reintroduced her passion for singing, playing, and writing music. She performs her own songs at open mics and is writing a book.
Angie’s journey to healing unlocked other passions, too. She is dedicated to sharing her story to help other veterans dealing with similar struggles see a way out of the darkness.
After setting out on this journey, Angie received proof of her impact through a written letter. The letter came from Don. He understood the dark place Angie had been in. He was there, too.
Hearing her story inspired him to do something. He wrote a letter of gratitude to let Angie know what she did for him.
“At a point in my life when I thought I had no hope left, some power in the universe brought Angie’s story into my life, and that gave me the strength to acknowledge my despair and once again see that life is truly worth living,” Don wrote in the letter.
From Feeling Alone to Finding Fulfillment
Military service was pretty much a lifetime commitment for Don. He joined the Army right after high school. After four years of active duty, he got out of the Army and started college. He joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and earned officer commission through ROTC. During this time, he spent a year in Afghanistan and served as a military intelligence officer in the National Guard until 2020.
Don was a leader in the military, but it only compounded his issues, because he didn’t feel it was OK to talk about what was going on in his mind and was using unhealthy ways to cope.
“I've always struggled with self-esteem, asking, ‘Am I good enough? Did I do enough?’ Don said. “Especially as a leader in the military, you have to power through and shove those struggles down. I used alcohol a lot. I was a binge drinker the entire time. It only got worse when I got out.”
Don also said the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 hit him hard, pushing him further into a downward spiral. He questioned if all the effort that was put in was worth it.
“I started to think maybe this world would be a better place if I wasn’t in it,” he said.
The stigma surrounding mental health and suicidal ideation was preventing Don from reaching out for help – or even acknowledging that he needed help.
“My decision to not ask for help to try to avoid that stigma was me just lying to myself and hiding my thoughts and feelings and struggles and choosing really unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Don said.
Until one day when Don stumbled upon Angie’s story. He remembers it clearly. It was Sept. 28, 2022. He was up late, as usual. Sleep had eluded him for a long time.
“I couldn't remember the last time I slept through the night,” Don said. “I'm talking years; drinking every day and dealing with depression. I was reading articles about what's going on in Afghanistan and was looking back at things that happened in the past, and Angie's article came up.”
The headline grabbed his attention: “Here’s how a disabled combat veteran and mother overcame her suicidal thoughts.” He clicked on the link and read Angie’s story about her struggles with suicidal thoughts, and her recovery.
Don stopped drinking on Sept. 29, 2022.
“When I saw her struggles and how she opened up and said that she had come home, she'd been wounded, she's having difficulty adjusting. It echoed with me,” Don said. “And then I got to the quote where she said I am not going to keep this quiet because it might help someone else. I was the someone else.”
Don credits his wife with keeping the household running smoothly and supporting him during his darkest times. But he knew he wasn’t really living for him or her. He struggled with feelings of loneliness and thinking he wasn’t deserving of help. After reading Angie’s story, he realized that feeling is likely common among service members and veterans who may not be comfortable sharing their personal struggles or reaching out.
“When we come home, we all deal with different things. But that doesn't mean the mission is over,” Don said. “Now, more than ever I think, it's important to be here for each other. Reading that from another comrade, I felt like, ‘Hey, I'm not alone.’”
Don was also inspired to join WWP. He wants to give others the same kind of hope Angie gave him. He participates in VA studies and groups and wants to spend his post-military time helping care for fellow veterans and letting them know it’s OK to ask for help.
“I've lost a few close friends who were killed in action and then a couple of friends to suicide. Sadly, they fought the same battles we're fighting, and they're not here anymore,” Don said. “But we're still here. We have to help each other.”
Combating the Stigma and Reducing the Rates
Angie and Don are not alone in their struggles when it comes to veterans and suicidal thoughts. According to WWP’s 2022 Annual Warrior Survey, more than 1 in 4 warriors (28%) reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. More than half (52%) reported at least one instance of suicidal ideation in their lifetimes.
The survey also shows that nearly 1 in 5 warriors reported having attempted suicide at least once in their lifetimes. The most recent National Veteran Suicide Prevention report from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates an average of 16.8 veteran suicides per day, which is about 1.5 times higher than the general U.S. non-veteran population.
Reducing those rates is paramount for WWP and its programs for mental health and physical health and wellness are designed to support that. Mental health programs like WWP Talk and Project Odyssey help veterans connect with others and provide a safe place to share and deal with their feelings.
Talking openly about mental health and suicidal feelings is a huge step in erasing the stigma and reducing these numbers.
“I didn’t talk about it because I thought it was taboo,” Angie said, “What I thought was a weakness has turned into a strength that I can turn around and help empower other veterans to keep going. We can’t keep losing each other. We survived the battlefield, and we’re here for a reason. We can’t lose sight of that.”
You Are Not Alone
Talking about suicidal ideation takes courage and strength. It can also save lives, like Angie’s and Don’s. No veteran or service member should feel like they are alone.
Reaching out and asking for help also takes courage. Many veterans struggle with doing that because of a military mentality to suck it up.
Don is grateful for Angie giving him the realization that toughing it out doesn’t need to be the reality. She encouraged him to reach out and get help.
“I saw I'm not alone. Angie's not alone. We're not alone,” Don said. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to help make it better.”
He now feels a responsibility to open up about where he was and empower other veterans to take back their lives.
“I thought I could do this on my own, and I was wrong,” Don said. “So, if you even think that maybe your load's gotten a little too heavy, you have to reach out. Don't hesitate to reach out.
“I'm still alive. I'm still here, and as long as we're still here, we have a chance. It's never too late.”
Learn more about veteran suicide prevention and how WWP can help.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 (press 1), or texting 838255.
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.