The former Marine taking the fight to veteran suicide

Cole Lyle
Courtesy Cole Lyle

Marine veteran Cole Lyle found himself breaking down as he left the service in 2014.

His marriage was deteriorating, he wasn’t in school and he didn’t have a job. And he had lost his support system: the men and women with whom he served.

“It really was just the lowest point in my life, and I was two pounds of trigger pull away from being one of the statistics — a veteran’s suicide statistic — if it had not been for another Marine that intervened,” Lyle told The Hill in a recent interview.

Eight years later, he’s the executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonprofit raising awareness on issues affecting veterans, and particularly veterans’ suicide.

“The ultimate goal of Mission Roll Call is to reduce the number of veterans that are making that irreversible decision,” he said.

Recent data on suicide among veterans shows progress but still reflects the urgency of the problem.

According to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs released in September, 6,261 former service members died by suicide in 2019, which is 399 fewer than the year prior and an unprecedented drop compared to the past 20 years.

But that doesn’t change the facts that veterans are far more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans. That same report found that the suicide rate among veterans in 2019 was 31.6 per 100,000, nearly double the rate of non-veteran U.S. adults, which is 16.8 per 100,000.

Why the rates are so much higher among veterans is still unclear.

“I don’t know if anyone has really answered that question,” said Rajeev Ramchand, co-director of the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute, pointing to multiple theories, including one that that it could be due to elevated rates of mental health disorders in the veteran population.

Ramchand emphasized that suicide is still relatively rare in the veteran community, adding that not every veteran has suicidal intentions or mental health concerns.

“Even though the suicide rate is higher among veterans and non-veterans and even though too many veterans are dying by suicide, we have to be careful that we’re factual when talk about the narrative,” he said.

Since the most recent data the VA has is from 2019, it’s unclear how recent major events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will impact suicide rates among veterans.

Lyle, who served a tour in Afghanistan during his time as a Marine, says he already has an idea of the impact the withdrawal has had on veterans’ mental health.

“I had a lot of men and women that I served with, who were reaching out to me as the only person in my former unit that deployed Afghanistan that had served at the federal policy level. They were reaching out to me and trying to reconcile, ‘Hey, how is this happening? Why are we letting this happen? What’s going on?’ ” Lyle said. “I ended up talking down you know, three of my friends from suicide.”

The day after his own intervention from a fellow Marine, Lyle decided to get his life together. Wanting to get into public service, he moved to Washington, D.C., from Texas to intern for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and work for a nonprofit.

But he still needed to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He’d been prescribed pills in the past, but nothing was working until he asked a friend about getting a service dog.

Lyle eventually acquired one, a German shepherd, which sparked a lot of questions from people given he’s not blind or otherwise physically disabled. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) even asked him about the service dog, which eventually led to legislation on the issue.

When Lyle met with Tillis, he explained that “the pill and traditional therapies” for PTSD weren’t working for him or his friends who are veterans, with some turning to self-medication “using alcohol or weed or any number of different things.”

Lyle went on to help draft the original version of the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) Act in 2016. On Aug. 25 of last year, the bill, which requires the VA to implement a program to provide canine training to eligible veterans with PTSD, officially became law.

After his time on Capitol Hill, Lyle went onto work at American Legion and the VA before Mission Roll Call reached out to him.

“Mission Roll Call approached me and just said, ‘Hey, you know, this is what we do. Suicide prevention is our No. 1 policy priority, access to care and benefits is another one of our priorities and we’d really love for you to come on board and take the helm of this organization,’ ” Lyle said. “It really felt like I was just being called to do it after having dealt with some of my personal friends that were having these mental health issues.”

The nonprofit organization directly polls veterans to hear their needs and then presents those findings to lawmakers.

One piece of legislation the group has its eyes on is the Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served Act, which aims to address gaps in veterans’ health care at the VA and create uniform standards for care.

It builds on legislation that Congress has already passed, the Mission Act, which was aimed at improving veteran access to community providers. Recent reporting has indicated that veterans have been frustrated getting the care that they need despite the legislation.

“We want to continue ensuring that legislation is crafted thoughtfully and ultimately helps the veteran community in the VA’s efforts to prevent veteran suicide and to ensure access to care and benefits,” Lyle said.

Tags Cole Lyle military suicide Mission Roll Call Post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD Ted Cruz Thom Tillis veteran suicide veteran suicides Veterans suicide veterans suicides
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