The university lost two members of the community this weekend. While they were both tragic in their own way, the death of Michael Zuelsdorff Saturday morning highlights a growing mental health crisis that veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing.
Zuelsdorff, 33, a Sergeant First Class in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, and sophomore majoring in Forestry, took his own life early Saturday while attending drill. He joined the army in 1997 and spent over 15 years in service to the country, deploying once to Kuwait and Iraq. He most recently was a member of the 273rd Engineer Company in Medford.
Unfortunately, stories like Zuelsdorff’s are all too common to veterans. While veterans account for only one percent of Americans, they represent 20 percent of the suicides in the United States, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA estimates that a veteran dies from suicide every 80 minutes.
The Army reported that 22 soldiers committed suicide in January. The Army is the only branch of the military that releases numbers.
"We need to increase the focus on reducing the stigma of mental health and seeking treatment," said Jason Hansman, Membership Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "There is still very much a stigma around vets, or someone active duty, going to see a counselor or therapist about the very real issues they are facing."
During President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, IAVA issued a release that called on the president to "devote the country’s full attention and resources towardstemming this crisis and destigmatizing invisible wounds."
"You know how in every unit they want you to know who they are, so they have these huge signs out in front. Mental health is the exact same thing," said Keith Techmeier, UWSP alumnus and veteran. "There is the big old sign right there and you are walking past it, you are walking into that area, and there are HESCO barriers around it so it is quite obvious where you are going. Everybody can see it. Everybody knows where you are going and what you are doing."
Other members of the UWSP Veteran’s Club expressed that they were hesitant to visit with the military chaplain because they were afraid of being shamed by their peers.
One of the problems Hansman pointed out is that 50 percent of veterans are not signed up with the VA.
"They aren’t even signed up to get care through the VA. I think that’s one of the fundamental issues as well," Hansman said. "Unfortunately vets have to wait far too long to receive mental health treatment. There aren’t enough mental health practitioners to meet the needs of the community, and when they have to wait too long they’ll go somewhere else."
Zuelsdorff’s loss has hit the club pretty hard and has left the community with more questions than answers. Members were left questioning what the goal of the club should be.
"This is what our club is, this is what our mission statement is. It’s not the guy just getting off the plane that we need to help. It’s your friend; it’s the guy next to you. It was one of us. It was the guy who said he wanted to help people, that is the guy that needed the help," said Richard Gaffney, UWSP student and member of the Vets Club. "In many ways our battle doesn’t begin until we get home."
"As soon as the plane lands, we all have this idea that the funerals are going to stop." Techmeier said. "When that doesn’t happen that throws you for a loop."
"It certainly continues in force after someone comes home," Hansman said. "You face a very different kind of battle stateside than you do when you are in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a constant uphill fight."