The War Within: Alabama grapples with high veteran suicide rates

Alabama’s veterans are taking their lives at higher rates than the rest of the nation

Ala. working to address veteran suicides

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - At one point Lynn Vail sensed her son, whom she called Ricky, had a renewed hope after returning home from combat. Specialist Ricardo Acosta served his nation with two tours in Iraq. He also studied musical engineering at St. Petersburg College in Florida.

“He had a very exuberant personality," Lynn recalled. “If he was comfortable with you, he kept you laughing. He was just the light of the life and a big brother to his sisters and Mama’s boy.”

But that exuberant, funny, loving person changed after Ricardo witnessed his friend’s death while serving in Iraq, Lynn said.

“Shell shocked. He just looked shell shocked," she explained. “He had the thousand mile stare that they say about soldiers going back to World War I. Unless he was comfortable with you, he felt disconnected from society.”

Photos of SPC Ricardo Acosta in uniform. Acosta witnessed a friend's death during a tour in Iraq, a moment his mother says changed him.
Photos of SPC Ricardo Acosta in uniform. Acosta witnessed a friend's death during a tour in Iraq, a moment his mother says changed him. (Source: Lynn Vail)

Ricardo was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. He attended therapy sessions through the Veterans Affairs Administration and was prescribed medication.

“What most definitely did not help was their answer to soldiers returning with PTSD is to throw them on a myriad of drugs. And that is a downward spiral," his mother stated.

Sixteen days before his 29 birthday, Ricardo took his own life.

“The demons fought too hard and he fought so hard for many years and he lost," Lynn said. It left Ricardo’s family, including his mother and three younger sisters torn. “We’ll never be the same. There’s a missing piece.”

“We’ll never be the same. There’s a missing piece.”
Lynn Vail - Mother of Specialist Ricardo Acosta

In an effort to avoid more missing pieces to the hearts of families across the state, the Alabama Legislature created the Task Force on Veterans’ Suicide.

It’s estimated that an average of 20 veterans take their lives each day in the United States. Alabama is home to around 400,000 veterans.

An estimated 34.2 Alabama veterans per 100,000 died by suicide in 2016. That’s higher than the national average of 30.1 veterans per 100,000 who took their own lives.

In 2016, the veteran suicide rate in Alabama was 60 percent higher than the rate for civilians and nine percent higher than other Southern states, according to House Joint Resolution 151.

“You put someone in a combat zone, it puts a psychological toll on any human being.”
Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis

Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis said the task force will meet for two years and recommend legislation to lawmakers. “You put someone in a combat zone, it puts a psychological toll on any human being,” said Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis

“One of the aims of this task force is to find out why is the rate so high before we get to potential solutions for that rate,” Davis stated.

Part of the solution, according to Davis, could include investing more money in prevention services. He also wants to ramp up communication to veterans across the state. This includes linking veterans and their families with nonprofit organizations.

Lynn Vail said she wishes she would have known about the support groups and nonprofits before her son’s death.

Photos of SPC Ricardo Acosta. His family says after two tours in Iraq, he had PTSD and "the thousand mile stare." He took his own life weeks before his 29th birthday.
Photos of SPC Ricardo Acosta. His family says after two tours in Iraq, he had PTSD and "the thousand mile stare." He took his own life weeks before his 29th birthday. (Source: Lynn Vail)

“It could be something they thought about for five minutes and that they could have been talked down and that’s where I feel peer support should come in," she said. “The VA should be connecting peer support groups, battle buddies, retreats for them to connect to have someone to call so they don’t feel all alone.”

“We took him out deep sea fishing and he caught a lemon shark," she remembered. "He was so tickled pink calling all his friends and he grilled it up and that was a good memory.”

Now, Lynn, a Decatur native, says she relies on pictures and fond memories of Ricardo as one way to bring her joy.

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