In the wake of someone’s suicide are feelings of grief, self-doubt, blame and reflection. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors is an organization that helps survivors overcome such emotions.
When Elizabeth Johnson thinks of her late husband, she sees him spinning donuts in an empty parking lot, adventuring through the woods and cracking jokes. But Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Robert “Robby” Johnson was more than just a lighthearted good time. So the Oregonian lets her mind drift deeper sometimes, back to 2008 when she — a big-dreams 18-year-old — married Robby.
Elizabeth relives collapsing into his arms after learning her 6-year-old sister was killed in an accident. They had only been Mr. and Mrs. for three months.
“He always found the silver lining,” she said. “I truly believe that his positivity and need to make others feel happy saved my life.”
When it came time to save his own, however, Robby was not as successful. That December, while deployed to Iraq, the 21-year-old Marine shot himself in the head. It was five days before Christmas.
A rising tide
As the surviving spouse affected by the suicide of a military member, men and women like Elizabeth are growing in number.
The military has closely tracked suicides since 2001, reaching a high in 2012. That is, until 2018, when the branches again equaled the loss of active-duty Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers to suicide. At least 321 active military members killed themselves last year including 138 soldiers, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 57 Marines. Even more alarmingly, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force announced that as of Aug. 1, 78 airmen had already taken their own lives in 2019.
Though exact numbers are unavailable, a significant portion of those men and women were married, leaving behind a wife or husband to wonder what went wrong — and what, if anything, could have stopped their loved one’s fatal act.
The day that Robby took his own life, for example, he and Elizabeth argued via phone. “I blamed myself for years,” she admitted. “My biggest struggle was thinking that if I hadn’t hung up, it wouldn’t have happened. Or if I had called his chain of command when I started to worry, they could have done something.”
That’s a lament that Kim Ruocco of Newbury, Massachusetts, hears frequently. As the vice president of Suicide Prevention and Postvention at TAPS, part of her full-time job includes listening to heartbroken military-affiliated men and women like Elizabeth.
“I don’t think the American public understands really what our military families are shouldering,” she said. “We think about service member and ask questions why, but don’t look at the ripple effect on family members.”
The mission of TAPS is to counter that lack, providing “peer-based emotional support to all those who are grieving the death of someone who died during or as a result of their military service,” according to its website. Since its creation in 1994, Ruocco says, TAPS has helped more than 85,000 surviving family members through peer mentoring networks, case work assistance, in-person care groups and virtual support.
More than 12,000 of those family members, Ruocco says, are suicide loss survivors. And she’s one of them.
Ruocco’s husband was “the perfect Marine” and “the guy who was taking care of everybody,” she said. Yet in 2005, tormented by hidden depression and post-traumatic stress, Maj. John Ruocco took his life while on pre-deployment training. Their sons were only 8 and 10 years old.
“He saw himself as the problem, the burden to his family and fellow Marines,” Kim said. “John had just gotten back from combat where he knew how to solve problems with lethal force. So he took lethal force to what he thought was a problem.”
Kim, a licensed social worker, turned her grief into action. Working formally for TAPS for the last decade, she has influenced national and military leaders, developed a comprehensive suicide-survivor program, served on multiple suicide prevention and postvention task forces, traveled around the world sharing her story with survivors and spoken with countless media outlets.
“As spouses, we’re really on the front lines of suicide prevention, yet everything we learn about being a military spouse somewhat goes against helping a loved one in crisis,” she said. “We’re indoctrinated with the same culture as our service members, which is ‘Suck it up, push through, keep problems with your family private.’ We’re not taught what to do when there are problems.”
TAPS aims to change that cover-it-up culture. And in honor of September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Kim wants to give military spouses the freedom to act upon their concern.
“When your [spouse] is struggling, really focus on what the struggle is,” she recommended. “Ask, how can we decrease these pressures and actually help you versus helping you push through it?”
Often, that includes seeking outside help, whether from a chaplain/pastor, counselor, mentor, chain of command or helpline. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re worried, talk to someone, anyone,” said Elizabeth, who utilized a TAPS support group. “Because [spouses] are struggling emotionally doesn’t mean you have to bear their burdens [alone].”
Above all — whether one is worried about a living spouse or healing from a suicide — Kim tells military wives and husbands that there is healing available.
“We want to create a pathway for survivors to use to save lives,” she said. “We don’t want any of our loved ones’ deaths to be in vain.”
“Everyone does the best they can. But we’ve got to get the spouses more information, more tools and resources so the same thing doesn’t keep happening.”