Preventing suicides in the military
The death of Kim Ruocco's husband led her to try to put a stop to others.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Instead, she read about it: books by mothers who had lost children to suicide, by people who had spent their careers studying suicide – anything to help her understand the terrible event that had so irrevocably altered her family. She searched her memory of their 23 years as sweethearts and spouses, trying to figure out how the unthinkable had become possible.
That kind of scrutiny sometimes can intensify sorrow, not lighten it. But through her grief, Mrs. Ruocco, now manager of suicide outreach and education programs for the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), has quietly become an important figure in the effort to respond to suicides by military personnel.
"The experience of living through a loss to suicide raises question after question for the survivor," says Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, manager of the Marine Corps Suicide Prevention Program (MCSPP). "But through that – in Kim's larger efforts in suicide prevention and in her work with the Marine Corps – her work is helping to save other lives."
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, so, too, do military suicides. This year, the MCSPP counted 34 suspected suicides among active duty marines from January to July. It recorded 42 suicides in the same group for all of 2008. The US Army lists 96 reported active-duty suicides for January to July 2009, up from 79 from January to July 2008.
Ruocco, who lives in Newbury, has told her story to military personnel around the country, encouraging individuals to seek help. She has also become a support to survivors of suicide – family members who may suddenly be crushed by grief, rejection, guilt, and shame.
"When many people would have slammed the door shut on the world and hunkered down with their grief, Kim has left the door open," says Bonnie Carroll, the founder of TAPS. "She has allowed others to learn from her experience as a survivor and a caregiver."
"Suicide is very complicated; every individual case of suicide is different," Ruocco says. "It's important to decrease the stigma attached to suicide by the military and to offer services to support both troops and survivors."
Ruocco, who holds a master's degree in social work, reviewed her husband's personnel files. She found only outstanding reviews. But as she thought about it more, she found signs: For example, the helicopter pilot had been rattled by a number of fatal flight accidents in his unit during duty in North Carolina in the 1990s.
While commanding a helicopter squadron in Iraq in 2004, he again grew troubled. He told Kim that he felt disconnected from the family, that he had difficulty flying, and that he could no longer find beauty in the world. His habits changed: He stopped attending church, and he sent the family just two letters during his six-month deployment.