Rylan Choate was on active duty for a year in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star with Valor. That day, close air control couldn’t land due to terrain. The ensuing 16-hour fire fight cost the lives of two platoon sergeants. It also earned Choate the citation that hangs on his wall.
Nineteen tattoos, including a cross on his right arm and script that reads, “The Kingdom of God in within you” are a permanent reminder.
Now a patrolman in local law enforcement and chaplain’s assistant in the Air Guard, he is seeking to help others like himself.
“It took me six years to process that 16 hours,” said Choate, who says veterans often are left with unanswered moral dilemmas, such as why they survived when others did not. “I had to process this solo.”
His military experience plus the veteran-related calls in his law enforcement capacity gave him the idea to start Veterans Peer Support.
“I was working the road and calls would come, usually suicidal,” Choate said. He now asks to be notified of such calls by his associates.
“I want to follow up,” Choate said.
Historically, the suicide rate in the U.S. Army has been below that of civilians, but military rates began climbing in the early 2000s, and by 2008, exceeded the demographically-matched civilian rate.
Suicide rates for all veterans remain significantly above their civilian counterparts, and current statistics and analysis published in the Annals of Epidemiology (February 2015) revealed that the suicide rate among veterans are now 50 percent higher than civilians of similar demographic.
Reasons for the spike are unclear, but the pressures of leaving military careers, readjusting to civilian life and combat injuries, like post-traumatic stress disorder, are suspected to play a role. The problem is complex and not linked to any single isolated factor, such as deployment, which makes it difficult to treat.
According to Choate, successful reintegration into civilian life depends upon the coping mechanisms available and a veteran’s social environment. Drugs and alcohol are common forms of self-medication, but he said he thinks the best way is peer to peer.
“You don’t know what to do, you keep bumping into doors at the VA,” he said. “It’s about getting them together and sharing stories.”
He added that it’s crucial to establish contact prior to combat engagement, and his new approach is proactive rather than the retroactive method currently employed.
“You see gruesome things, get debriefed and then filtered through mental health,” he said. “With us, they’ll know what to expect ahead of time.”
A self-described hard charger, Choate said he had a hard time retraining following two shoulder surgeries and a fall from a Chinook. Veterans Peer Support is an extension of what he does in the Air Guard as assistant chaplain, caring for people face-to-face.
“Viet Nam vets still have camaraderie, but life’s morphed since then. We’re not getting together now,” he said. “If they (younger vets) don’t get into VFW and the American Legion, if we don’t get involved, we’re stuck reinventing the wheel.
“I don’t want my generation to be stuck.”
While concerned about younger men who’ve had multiple deployments back to back, the new group isn’t just for combat veterans.
“If you didn’t have to serve overseas, you still bring a lot to the table,” Choate said. “What’s to say you don’t own a business and can’t filter guys through?”
The new group will also reach out to women.
According to the Los Angeles Times, recent government research shows that female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women and their rate approaches that of men.
“We’re working on that,” said Capt. Angel Huval, of the Louisiana Army National Guard. A social worker for 20 years who assisted during Katrina, Huval was inspired to serve in the military after repeatedly hearing, “You’re a really nice lady, but you can’t understand.”
Huval will be playing a direct role in the new group, and agrees same-gender therapy groups are seen to be more productive, but that women will have a choice.
“So much has changed, now we allow females in combat roles. We realize women need that specific support with issues concerning our roles as women in society,” she said.
The first licensed clinical social worker in the 256th, Huval said prior to her commission, the National Guard relied on chaplains.
“I got a crash course in military customs and deployed to Iraq,” she said. “Boots on the ground, providing clinical services.”
A woman and a mother without prior military experience, it was a struggle leaving her daughter behind, Huval said, and she felt an immediate connection to other female soldiers.
“We come together because we’re a minority,” she said. “It’s a unique culture.”
Huval is a behavioral health officer and frequently does assessments and suicide prevention.
“I’m still seeing soldiers who are struggling,” she said.
Huval, who said she was criticized by civilians for leaving her daughter during deployment, was often asked upon her return if her child felt abandoned.
“It takes a toll,” she said. “That will bring on the guilt for that woman.”
Choate envisions a time when Veteran Peer Support yard signs are commonplace in areas with heavy veteran populations.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” he said. “I’d love to see this take the nation by storm.”
In the meantime, he pitches brotherhood and sisterhood, unity, and don’t give up.
“I’m a one-team, one-fight kind of guy,” he said.