WHITEWATER—Veteran and UW-Whitewater student Ryan Krebs suffers memory loss from a brain injury.
But he never forgets the dates of the deaths of five fellow Marines.
Two died in Afghanistan in separate explosions.
Two died in car accidents.
Another took his life late last year.
All the deaths weigh heavily on Krebs, but the most recent took him to a deeper despair.
“I felt the world get a lot darker,” the 25-year-old said. “I began having dark thoughts about hurting myself. One day, I decided that I would go home after school and put a bullet in my brain.”
Coincidentally, a friend interviewed Krebs on the same day about his military service for a class project. The friend, Dylan Sessler, asked Krebs if he ever thought about suicide.
Krebs confided that he had, but he did not say anything about his fatal plan.
Then Sessler told Krebs something the veteran will never forget.
“I'm glad you are still with us,” Sessler said.
Krebs had convinced himself that he was alone and that no one cared about him.
“But I was wrong,” Krebs said. “I began thinking about how it would impact my friends if I took my own life. I realized I could not bring them that kind of pain. There's no one closer in life than your fellow vets.”
Krebs credits the small veterans' lounge in Andersen Library on the UW-Whitewater campus for saving his life.
“Were it not for the atmosphere in the lounge that makes me feel safe talking about anything, I would be dead today,” Krebs said.
Veterans and current military members who are students gather daily in the small lounge, which opened in 2011.
“We all have our demons from our time in service,” Krebs said. “Our families do not know what to say. We can't talk to most students because they are just out of high school. But we can come to the lounge, where veterans drop everything and help each other through the darkness.”
Krebs joined the Marines in July 2009 because he said he wanted to fight his country's battles.
Five months later, his car hit an icy patch on Highway 26 north of Janesville and collided with a semitrailer truck.
“The last thing I remember is the semi coming at me,” Krebs said.
The impact left him with broken bones and brain damage. He had to learn how to walk and to talk again.
“I joined the Marines to be in combat,” Krebs said. “But I never got to deploy. I have plenty of friends who were injured or died overseas. I wish I could have done my part. A lot of us veterans feel survivor's guilt. I wonder if they died because I wasn't there.”
Krebs was stationed in Japan for more than a year before he left the military in August of 2013.
He said he hates being thanked for his service.
“It makes me think about the people who didn't come back or who lost limbs,” Krebs said.
Instead, he wants people to ask themselves what they can do to help veterans.
“Do you care about veterans?” he said. “Or do you walk away when their world is collapsing on them?”
Richard Harris sleeps lightly knowing that veterans take their own lives.
“We have more than 300 student-veterans and military members on campus,” he said. “I am on the front lines trying to sense how they are feeling and what interventions can help them.”
Harris is coordinator of student veterans and military services at UW-Whitewater.
His work in suicide prevention in an ongoing effort that includes documentation and referrals for services at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Madison.
In the year he has been on the job, Harris has helped a dozen vets who confided that they thought about taking their lives.
He knows there are more.
“This population is difficult to get through the doors,” said Harris, an Army veteran. “They need to reach out to someone who understands. I need to be there first for support. The next step is to get them help.”
From March 14 through March 18, Harris will initiate a “student call to action” on campus to bring awareness to the issue of veterans and suicide.
His goal is to distribute more than 1,000 pieces of educational material.
“We make veterans aware of suicide,” Harris said. “But we also have to make other people, including the community, aware of it.”
Harris will encourage student veterans and their family members to write letters about the personal impact of suicide on their lives.
He plans to present the letters to Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch for “a state call to action.”
“People in this country are not addressing the issue of suicide,” Harris said. “It is very real. The lives that are lost are very real.”
Different studies show different rates of suicide among veterans.
“We don't argue the numbers,” Harris said. “We know it is happening. We know we have to reach out to veterans. If they fail here, it is because we did not have the support systems in place.”
One analysis published last year in the Annals of Epidemiology shows the rate of suicide among vets, especially younger vets, is about 50 percent higher than the civilian population, said James Lickel, a psychologist with the Veterans Administration.
“We know that the first three years following discharge from the military are a time of higher risk,” Lickel said. “We also know that the suicide rates among vets are lower for those engaged in health care at the VA.”
He is part of a program that brings VA providers to campus.
“Student veterans are a challenging population,” Lickel said. “They are older than the average student, have families and jobs. They are busy people. Our program tries to meet them where they are at and offers them services to be successful in school.”
He helps veterans cut through red tape to get services and has counseled vets on the UW-Whitewater campus who have thought about suicide.
“The biggest thing I do is help them figure out where they feel like things are going wrong,” Lickel said. “They may feel like they don't belong anymore or like they don't have a purpose.”
Some veterans feel isolated and have lost their community during the difficult transition back to civilian life.
“It is so important that they have that community,” Lickel said. “I see it in the veterans lounge when these men and women talk about how they are doing and when they encourage each other to get help.”
He points out that a person does not have to serve in combat to be struggling with serious issues.
“We have lots of people who come to us years later who thought they were not eligible for help because they did not have a physical injury,” Lickel said. “I want the message to get out there that help and resources are available at the VA.”
VETERAN SEES A FUTURE
Ryan Krebs has reached out for help from a counselor.
“From day one, we are told to be strong,” Krebs said. “But true strength is asking for help when you need it. To fight the good battle, you have to fight as a team.”
His friend Dylan Sessler, also a veteran, recently found out that his supportive words dissuaded Krebs from taking his life.
“I had no idea,” Sessler said. “When he told me, it hit me like a bus.”
Joenes Anthony Cordero Gellada is president of the Veterans Servicemembers Organization on campus. He works to create awareness about veterans' issues.
When he learned Krebs contemplated suicide, he felt shocked and sad.
“We wondered what we missed or what we could have done,” Gellada said. “Many vets tend to keep it to themselves.”
Krebs is looking to the future.
He is in his second year at UW-Whitewater, where he is majoring in psychology. After graduation, he wants to work as a psychologist with the Veterans Administration.
The young veteran looks at every 24 hours as a new opportunity.
“I try harder every day to be better than I was the day before or any day before that,” Krebs said. “I need to be a better person for those around me.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.