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A Time for Thanks, a Call to Heal

LVHN and Valley Health Partners Veterans Day program stresses gratitude, shines light on veteran suicide

Veteran suicide rates are consistently higher than the general population, and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Darling is on a mission to make a difference.

Speaking at events such as the Veterans Day ceremony hosted by Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) and Valley Health Partners (VHP) is how he gets there.

“No matter where you served or under what conditions, please know your service is valued and you are valued, and we are forever grateful.” - Brian A. Nester, DO, MBA, President and Chief Executive Officer, LVHN

Darling, a Scranton native and 30-year Army veteran, created Valhalla Veterans Services seven years ago with the goal of helping veterans and their families find connection, purpose and hope. At Thursday’s (Nov. 9) ceremony at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest, he told in-person and virtual attendees he wants to change the way people think about veteran suicide.

In detailing what he called the “Deadly Recipe of Veteran Suicide,” Darling pointed to five factors that fundamentally affect veteran suicide and a military culture that thinks differently than civilians.

The recipe, he says, boils down to:

No-failure mentality. Also called “death before dishonor,” veterans can think it’s better to die, than fail, Darling says. He says he’s not criticizing the way the military trains its warriors because that’s necessary to win wars. He says he never failed in a mission during his career because there were always others there for support, to step in and step up. “For my 30 years in the military, I never really learned how to experience failure,” he says. Two years after he left the Army, his marriage failed, and he got divorced. “My mind told me it was better to die than fail.”

Familiarity with death. Darling says service members are conditioned to overcome their fear of death. “I accepted the idea that I was going to die in combat, and I was OK with it because it was for a higher purpose,” he says. “I never thought I was going to be 54 years old. I never planned for the future because it didn’t seem like a reality.”

Rapid decision-making. In the military, there is an emphasis on preparation, but also to be flexible in planning and thinking as circumstances change. Things happen fast and decisions need to keep up. In many cases, he says, suicidal behavior occurs within five minutes of someone thinking about it. Adverse circumstances may cause veterans to view themselves as a failure and bring about a quick decision to commit suicide.

Isolation. The military and civilian worlds have many differences, including social differences. Darling points out being told not to smile in his periodic military portrait photos because it was not considered professional. “In many social interactions, I feel alienated because I’m coming from a different culture that thinks about things in a very different way. You start to separate yourself from the sources where you can get help,” he says.

Purposelessness. In the military, Darling says, the motivation is the mission and everything is purposeful. In the civilian world, he says, there are other factors, such as job salary, which don’t necessarily motivate veterans as they would non-vets. “There is nothing in the world that is more purposeful than trying to stay alive or to kill another human being. That’s a reality. Everything kind of seems gray and ash-tasting when it’s compared with that.” he says.

Darling says when he counsels veterans who’ve had suicidal thoughts, he tells them they’re not crazy, that what they are thinking about because of what they are going through makes sense. “I give them permission to think about suicide because that is a rational decision based on their training,” he says, adding he also tells the veteran they may never kill themselves, “because that is not what a warrior does.”

“The reason I do that is because I know, just like Pavlov’s dogs, we have been trained to think in a very specific way and I need to put a stopgap in there. I may slow it down enough to stop it.”

Darling told the LVHN and VHP gathering: “We’re not crazy. We’re not broken. We come from a different culture, and we have a different way of approaching life. Our problem is in our warrior-ness but the solution is in our warrior-ness as well.”

LVHN leaders weigh in.

LVHN supports VHP and its Veteran Health Program which addresses the unique circumstances of people who have performed military service.

Joseph Yozviak, DO, chief medical officer for VHP, says legislation passed several years ago has resulted in more veterans getting health services in the private sector. He says VHP, working with LVHN, has embarked on an initiative to increase health care professional familiarity with both military culture and service-connected health conditions. Dr. Yozviak noted VHP has moved beyond Lehigh and Northampton counties and is now providing care in the Pocono region.

Brian A. Nester, DO, MBA, President and Chief Executive Officer, LVHN, told attendees that thanking veterans for their service is something everyone should take advantage of doing. “I really encourage you that if you haven’t said ‘thank you for your service’ recently, do it several times a week. It will bring you joy and what you see back will really touch your soul.”

Nester, an Army National Guard veteran, also praised VHP’s work on behalf of veterans and the comprehensive approach to get them the help and services they deserve.

“No matter where you served or under what conditions, please know your service is valued and you are valued, and we are forever grateful,” Nester says.

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