California Guard veteran fights back against military suicides

By Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin CosselJanuary 8, 2014

Retired Marine participates in the Save a Warrior program
Retired Marine Cpl. Kenny Toon enjoys an animal therapy session, Nov. 6, 2013, with 11 other combat veterans participating in the Save A Warrior program in Malibu, Calif. The program was designed by retired California Army National Guard Capt. Jake C... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

MALIBU, Calif. (Jan. 8, 2014) -- When it comes to veterans committing suicide, Save A Warrior founder Jake Clark minces no words.

"This is a holocaust in slow motion," the former California Army National Guard captain said. "Over the next ten years, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimates more than 150,000 vets will kill themselves."

Clark was referring to a 2013 report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, that estimated 22 veterans take their own life every day. But those numbers don't paint the whole picture, he pointed out, as only 21 states report suicide numbers to the VA.

"Two of the largest states in the nation -- California and Texas -- do not report their suicide numbers," Clark said.

He added that many cases of veterans taking their own lives are not included in the reports the VA receives.

"You've got guys offing themselves via cop-assisted suicide. You've got guys drinking themselves to death, overdosing. There's so much that doesn't get classified as suicide," he said. "The actual numbers aren't even close."

Clark was almost one of those numbers himself. After returning from a deployment to Kosovo, Clark said the things he witnessed there haunted him.

"It started getting really dark in my world," he said. "There was a .45 pistol at the head of my bed. I could always visualize my hand reaching into that drawer. I thought about committing suicide every day for 13 years."

Then Clark began practicing transcendental meditation, and it transformed his life.

"Something happened two weeks after I started meditating," he said. "The idea of killing myself was gone. It was replaced with this idea of trying to build something. I knew what I needed to do was try and get this in front of other returning veterans."

Clark brought his dream to fruition, Sept. 12, 2012, as the first Save A Warrior cohort got underway. More than just meditation, Clark calls his program "war detox."

Save a Warrior brings veterans together for six days to learn the art of mindful living. It includes equine-assisted therapy, wild horse gentling and self-motivation techniques taught at Big Heart Ranch in Malibu.

"You have to craft something that ends up being the best week of their lives," Clark said.

One such veteran, retired Petty Officer 2nd Class James "Doc" Hansen, credits the program with saving his life. After 13 years of service including two tours in Iraq as a Navy corpsman, Hansen was medically discharged from the Navy in 2009.

"I was in a bad place when I came to Save A Warrior," he said.

Following his discharge, Hansen moved to Oceanside, Calif., and tried to settle into the life of a college student.

"Then my mom died, my grades at school started falling, all while I was trying to deal with my [post-traumatic stress disorder] and [traumatic brain injury]," Hansen said.

Hansen went to his local VA hospital for assistance, but the treatment he was given only deepened his troubles.

"The side effects of the drugs they were giving me were worse than what they were treating," Hansen said shaking his head, a pained expression spreading across his face.

In an effort to continue serving his community and keep his corpsman skills sharp, Hansen had joined Team Rubicon, a veteran-centered, global emergency response team. And still, his downward spiral continued.

"It was the guys at Team Rubicon that suggested I call Jake and get into Save a Warrior," the Navy veteran said.

Hansen participated in the program's third cohort. Now he is back at Save a Warrior, assisting the veterans in Cohort 8.

"This program is a total emotional and cognitive housecleaning," he said. "I feel like the tools I got here gave me my life back.

"If I lived close, I'd be here more often," he added. "As it is, I get up here as often as I can to help out."

Clark said it costs about $1,200 to put a veteran through the program, and all the program's funding comes from private and corporate donations.

"I haven't earned a dollar off this program, but I'm the richest man in California," he said. "I'm solving this problem."

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Related Links:

Army: Suicide prevention help available 24/7 Human Interest News Ready and Resilient Soldier for Life

STAND-TO!: Ready and Resilient Campaign: Army Suicide Prevention Program

Army Suicide Prevention Program

Save A Warrior

1-800-273-TALK (8255) - National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Save A Warrior on Facebook