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By Don Branum
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
“Twenty-two a day” is a phrase many veterans use to talk about suicide awareness within the veteran community. It’s a number John Brutzman, the Vermont National Guard’s substance abuse prevention coordinator, is working to decrease.
Brutzman, a native of Montclair, New Jersey, also serves as a suicide prevention coordinator. He’s asking Soldiers to take time on World Suicide Prevention Day to learn the warning signs that someone might be considering suicide and to know what they can do to help.
“The Army breaks records every year in suicide,” Brutzman said. “We’ve lost more service members to suicide than to the War on Terror.”
One measure Brutzman has taken to raise awareness is visible in front of the Fallen Heroes Memorial on Camp Johnson. This weekend, 22 flags will line the walkway leading to the memorial, symbolizing the 22 veterans per day who die from suicide.
“Vermont hasn’t been immune to the 22-a-day statistic, even being the second-smallest state population-wise,” Brutzman said. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 18 veterans died from suicide in 2019, comprising one in six of the state’s total 107 suicides that year.
“This is one of the main drivers for my continued efforts to support our veteran population and our effort to encourage our Soldiers, Airmen, and veterans to ask for help if they need it,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, Vermont’s adjutant general. “I did it. There can be no stigma associated with it. People are our greatest assets, both during and after their service.”
The Fallen Heroes Memorial is a new location for the flags, which previously stood in front of Camp Johnson’s front gate.
“Since Capt. (Trevor) Pituck left, it came up to me, and I said, ‘Let’s do it by the memorial.’ I felt that was an appropriate homage.”
Brutzman joined the Vermont National Guard in 2016, about the same time he started attending Norwich University. He’s been assigned to D Co., 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry (Mountain), 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain) as an infantryman, and he deployed with the unit to Southwest Asia in 2021. He will put on his uniform one last time this weekend.
In his civilian position, Brutzman trains and appoints suicide intervention officers, who keep tabs on the overall mental well-being of the Soldiers and Airmen in their units and serve as points of contact for the Behavioral Services office. But those SIOs can’t do the job alone, Brutzman said: Everyone should know how to recognize signs that someone is in trouble.
“Overall, if you have a friend who’s withdrawn when they’re usually outgoing, or if they’re abusing substances like alcohol, drinking too much, lack of self-care and hygiene,” Brutzman said. The Vermont National Guard’s suicide prevention page also includes a list of direct and indirect warning signs: Soldiers might express a desire to harm themselves or may start talking about death or dying more regularly. They may also feel rage or anger, may engage in risky activities without taking precautions, and may exhibit anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings.
“I recommend talking about it and breaking the stigma,” Brutzman said. “We can work through it together.”
Brutzman said someone can support a friend who’s having a rough time with mental health by listening and helping them connect with mental health professionals as needed. Anyone who needs help can call 802-503-2433 or dial 988 and select Option 1. More resources are available at http://www.vtguard.com/suicide-prevention.