Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
DWIGHT, N.D. — The random thought that popped into Sgt. Nathan Griffin’s head that night wasn’t one he’d pondered before, but it ended up saving his life.
Then 22, the North Dakota Army National Guardsman had been experiencing nightmares and high anxiety since his return from serving in Iraq. Griffin was living hundreds of miles away from his family. He was drinking alcohol from morning until night, for days on end.
At his breaking point, he put a loaded pistol to his head. Suddenly, came that thought — how selfish are you?
He broke down, crying.
"I’m not a selfish guy, so it really bugged me," Griffin said.
He recently shared those dark moments, and how he’s managed to get past them, at the Dwight home where he now lives with his fiancee, Alicia Kania, and 8-year-old son Liam.
Others like Griffin haven’t been as fortunate.
Military veterans die by suicide at a higher rate than the general population, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.
About 30 of every 100,000 U.S. veterans took their own lives in 2016, compared with about 17 of every 100,000 members of the general population.
Griffin, now 33, is still in the Guard, and works as a Richland County sheriff’s deputy, volunteer firefighter and part-time police officer at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
He considers the pistol he once loathed an important reminder of truly how far he’s come.
Vets flagged for high risk
A total of 6,079 U.S. veterans ended their own lives in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, up from 5,797 in 2005.
In this region, however, veteran suicide numbers fluctuated from 2005 to 2016, showing no obvious trends.
In North Dakota, over that period, veteran suicides ranged from fewer than 10 per year to as many as 22 per year. In Minnesota, the number of veteran suicides ranged from a low of 77 to a high of 112.
The Fargo VA Medical Center has made suicide prevention among its top priorities. Anyone calling the facility immediately hears a voice message steering them to a veterans crisis line if they’re having thoughts of suicide.
Angela Collins, the Fargo VA's associate chief of staff for mental health, said staff aims to identify veterans at risk for suicide early on. Currently, the facility has put high-risk suicide flags on about 70 veterans in its "catchment" area, which includes most of North Dakota and 17 counties in northwest Minnesota, extending from Traverse County to Lake of the Woods County.
The VA follows those veterans more closely, and the high-risk flag will show up on their medical record, whenever and wherever they seek treatment, Collins said.
"We review all of these flags on a very regular basis to ensure that they’re still warranted. We want them to mean something," she said.
Sniper fire and ambushes
Griffin was adopted and has seven siblings. He grew up in Richland County in the tiny town of Dwight, about 10 miles northwest of Wahpeton, where he attended school.
His interest in the military was fueled by watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold on a classroom television. "I think that really lit a fire deep down inside where, I wanted to do something not just for my community, I wanted to do something bigger," Griffin said.
After graduating high school in 2006, he joined the North Dakota Army National Guard. In early 2008, he deployed to Iraq as part of the 191st Military Police Company of Fargo. The unit's mission was to train Iraqi police, conduct patrols, gather intelligence and search roads and vehicles for improvised explosive devices.
Shortly after they arrived, a rocket attack struck a base in Sadr City. "That kind of shook me a little bit, like ‘Oh, this is real,’" Griffin said.
The unit dealt with sniper fire and several ambushes.
Griffin’s job as a driver was filled with nervous and adrenaline-filled moments. By design, it meant he couldn’t help fellow soldiers in a skirmish but had to stay with the vehicle, making sure it and the convoy remained safe.
"You feel helpless and hopeless and powerless," Griffin said.
Another incident involved gunfire in the distance, followed minutes later by Iraqi children running by, carrying limp, lifeless bodies of other kids. The soldiers were trained not to intervene, in order to protect their own safety in case it was a trap.
After that, Griffin had a recurring nightmare where he's standing on a riverbank, watching a river of bodies flowing past him.
Nightmares etched in his mind
Griffin knows the situation could have been much worse, and that others have experienced far worse. There were injuries and close calls, but no members of that North Dakota unit lost their lives in Iraq.
Still, after returning home, he had vivid nightmares so often, they became etched in his brain, like memories.
He said he tried to talk with family members and friends about what he’d been through, but didn’t feel understood. He tried dealing with the nightmares and other emotional baggage by secluding himself and drinking alcohol.
Griffin made a rash decision to move to Iowa with a friend, thinking it could give him a fresh start. He didn’t have a job or a place to live, so he slept on the floor of a storage shed for a time.
"I was a shut-in — played video games or watched movies. And I’d drink all day, and then I’d go to the bar at night," Griffin said.
During this period, he was still driving back and forth to North Dakota once a month to take part in weekend drills with the Guard — the only setting in which he felt normal.
He shared his thoughts about suicide with a fellow soldier, who he said told him to just not think about such things. He also called a military suicide hotline a few times, but said he never got through.
"I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late," Griffin said.
'What changed my life'
Griffin said the night he almost took his own life was like any other, at first.
He was alone, drunk and feeling exhausted — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. "You just want it all to end," he said.
He called the military suicide hotline, but hung up after waiting on hold for 45 minutes.
On impulse, Griffin grabbed a loaded pistol he kept by his bed. He raised it to the side of his head, and then that random thought struck him, "How selfish are you?"
He thought about fellow service members who’d lost their lives serving their country. "And I’m going to do this? How is this honoring them?" he wondered.
He set the gun down and started bawling.
"I am selfish. That’s the answer to my question that I’ve been asking myself for months. And that’s what changed my life," Griffin said.
He passed out, woke up the next day and started planning a better path.
The more you talk, 'the better it gets'
One of the first things Griffin did was to get himself a dog, which gave him a sense of purpose. He also asked a friend to take his gun for a while.
A wise move, since 67% of veterans who die by suicide use a gun, and 90% of people who use a gun in a suicide attempt will die, said Tammy Monsebroten, coordinator of the Fargo VA's suicide prevention program.
The VA provides free cable gun locks to veterans, and encourages veterans who are at risk for suicide to put time and distance between themselves and a gun, Monsebroten said. "If we can decrease that opportunity for somebody to choose a firearm for suicide, we can decrease the amount of deaths we have," she said.
In addition to finding a new home for his gun, Griffin tried to cut back on alcohol consumption and got a job driving a semi. But it wasn’t a straight line of improvement, by any means.
With long hours on the road as a truck driver, he had all the time in the world to think. It made his anxiety worse, and the bad things that happened in Iraq began playing like a loop in his head.
He’d be driving and, a few hours later, realize he was in a different state, without remembering how he got there. "You’re fighting a war in your own head," Griffin said. "It’s just wave after wave after wave, just crashing down on you."
Sharing his experiences, in both individual and group therapy, ended up making the biggest difference.
"The more you talk about it, the better it gets. And that’s the truth," he said.
Tools for prevention
The Fargo VA has gone from having one full-time suicide prevention coordinator about a dozen years ago to four full-time employees tasked with ensuring that veterans at risk for suicide get "enhanced care," Monsebroten said.
Veterans might be screened for that risk when they first arrive for primary care or for their compensation and pension exam.
Because some veterans at risk of suicide are not enrolled in the VA health care system, Monsebroten said the VA tries to seek out their friends, family members, churches and employers to be on the lookout for warning signs.
A veteran’s highest risk for suicide is in the 90 days or so after their military discharge, she said. Some, like Griffin, struggle to readjust to civilian life.
After that, suicide risk decreases until about 25 years after discharge, then the risk begins to increase again, Monsebroten said. Her theory is that when people move into retirement, they have more time to think about problems they were able to fend off while raising children and working.
She encourages those at risk to have a safety plan that includes emergency phone numbers and go-to coping tools, including smartphone apps for deep breathing and meditation.
The Veterans Crisis Line is available for phone calls, texts or online chats — and it’s not just for when a person is feeling suicidal. Monsebroten said some vets want to talk about their nightmares, financial issues or relationship breakups.
Sometimes they fear calling because they assume police or paramedics will show up, she said. In fact, only about 25% of those who call the crisis line are referred to the VA, while the rest just need a sounding board and don’t need follow-up care.
Ten years ago, the VA had one such national call center. Now, it has three. When Griffin was feeling suicidal and unable to get through on the phone, it was a military hotline — not the VA call center — he was calling, he said.
Since launching the first VA call center in 2007, crisis line responders have answered more than 3.5 million calls, according to the VA.
A powerful reminder
In the 10 years since Griffin returned from Iraq, he's been married, had a child, divorced, moved from Iowa back to North Dakota and gained full custody of his son, while continuing to work through his demons.
His recovery means he’s still here on this earth — to get married again and to raise his boy.
It means he can still play with the family’s two dogs and look after the chickens in the backyard coop.
It means that Sgt. Griffin, a 13-year military veteran, can still attend weekend drills and volunteer to train members of his unit, one of his favorite things to do.
And, he’s still here to share his experience with fellow veterans.
Griffin believes God gave him those tests in life because they would make him stronger, and that he’d use them to help others. He’s recently started public speaking, addressing veterans groups and suicide prevention conferences.
The pistol he once hated — the one he nearly used to take his own life — is now part of the uniform he wears at his campus police job, and remains a powerful symbol for him.
"This is a reminder of where I’ve been, and where I don’t want to ever be again," Griffin said.
VETERANS IN CRISIS
Military veterans in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
Chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/get-help/chat or text to 838255.