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Groups Work To Raise Awareness, Combat Veteran Suicide Rates In Kentucky

Sharpened by J. Tyler Franklin, Louisville Public Media-8454
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Jeremy Harrell and Alex Randolph in Alex Randolph's home.

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 or, text to 838255.


On an evening in 2011, Louisville resident Alex Randolph was in Iraq, in the middle of a tour of duty with the Army. The night before, he and his team slept in a tank-like military vehicle. It was the fourth day of a mission and what happened that evening would haunt Randolph for years. It would also change the way his friends back home saw him. Memories of that night eventually led Randolph to think about killing himself.

As Randolph and his team slowly drove down dusty streets, he said a few kids emerged from a house holding guns.

He said his fireteam cautiously watched the kids, who ranged from eight to 12-years-old.

And then, one child started shooting.

“We ended up taking the lives of some kids,” Randolph said. “We had to — it was either our life or their life. When you have an eight-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old child pointing an AK, pointing a weapon at you, and you’re looking straight at it, you have a split second reaction.”

Intellectually, he knows why he did it.

“Am I going to give them a chance to shoot me and take my life? Or shoot one of my brothers or sisters and take their lives? Or am I going to take that shot and take them out?” Randolph said.

But emotionally, he questioned that decision for years. And when he went home with a medical discharge, he felt like a casualty of war. His friends back in Louisville called him a monster, he said. And for years he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder from that night and from seeing fellow soldiers die. His thoughts led him into a downward spiral.

Eventually, it all became too much. Randolph said he felt like suicide was the only answer.

Randolph’s experience is unfortunately not uncommon for veterans.Veterans are much more likely to kill themselves than people who’ve never served, bynearly 2 to 1. In Kentucky, the veterans’suicide rate is higher than the nationwide rate. Andnearly 17veterans nationwide die by suicide every day.

Though the problem isn’t new, this level of awareness is, according to Sherman Gillums, the chief advocacy officer with veterans advocacy group AMVETS.

“I don’t think veteran suicide is a new phenomena,” Gillums said. “I do think what’s changed is our awareness because information is more free flowing, and the experiences of service members and veterans is more visible.”

Raising Awareness

That awareness worked in Randolph’s favor. He knew he had to get help. So, one day in 2017, he posted an SOS on the Veteran’s Club Facebook page. Iraq War Veteran Jeremy Harrell is the Veteran’s Club executive director, and created the group to serve as a social club to rebuild that connection that is lost when service members leave the military.

 “Jeremy is the reason why I’m still here,” Randolph said. “Because at that point, I was ready to just end everything."

In the few years since Harrell started getting a small group of vets together, the group now has 2,000 members Kentucky-wide. And in that time Harrell has fielded many calls from suicidal vets and their family members. Harrell said he draws from his own experiences with suicidal thoughts, and trainings he’s received on suicide prevention.

“I’ve had conversations, sometimes four or five hours, in an effort to try to get them ready to go get some help, and I hate to use the phrase, talk them off the ledge, but to do that,” Harrell said.

Harrell also helps connect the vets to counseling at the VA. That’s a solution Randolph had sought when he was struggling back in 2017.  But he said he was told there was a six- to- eight-week wait. He said he felt like that response was a slap in the face.

 “Then what the hell are y’all even here for? Why should I bother trying to go through y’all to get help? I’ve waited long enough,” Randolph said. “Now you’re telling me I’ve got to two, three, four, six weeks to get the help I’m asking for? You know, I may not be here.” 

Harrell, though, has connections with the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville. Harrell got Randolph in to see a counselor the very next day.

The Robley Rex VA Hospital in Louisville said it’s made some changes since the time Randolph was told he’d have to wait to get an appointment. Louisville VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator Kelly Marcum said they now have same-day mental health appointments.

“If you need to go in on that day to see someone, but it's not an emergency issue, you just need to talk to somebody because you have some kind of issue, [and] you're not feeling an immediate danger to harm yourself or others, you can get at least an assessment with some mental health clinic staff,” Marcum said.

Marcum also said the hospital is working on other projects to prevent veteran suicide. Since July, the Louisville VA has distributed more than 2,000 gun locks to vets. Marcum said even a few minutes to unlock a gun could save a life — there’s usually only a five-minute window when a person is actively attempting suicide. InKentucky in 2016, three-fourths of suicides by veterans were carried out using a firearm, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

There are also efforts to better educate families of veterans. Gillums with AMVETS said his organization is trying to teach families about red flags that can indicate a veteran is struggling and might be considering suicide. AMVETS recently started offering a suicide prevention online curriculum geared to families.

“It’s the families, the people that are the first line witness to what’s happening that don’t know what they’re seeing,” Gillum said. “The veteran is reacting to a lack of support and a lack of understanding of what’s happening.”

And the Veteran’s Club Facebook page is full of people who are willing to help. On a recent evening, 15 people offered to pick up a vet who said he was having suicidal thoughts and was drinking heavily at a bar. Randolph was one of those people.

“When I start seeing fellow brothers and sisters comment and post if they need help — somebody reached out to me and gave me a hand and led me,” Randolph said. “Now it’s my turn to pay it forward and reach out.” 

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, or text to 838255.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.