Young vets in Missouri die by suicide at high rate
Kindall Johnson woke up early that October Saturday to get to his fraternity’s Homecoming Day tailgate.
On the way out the door of his parents’ house, he shouted a goodbye to his mother, Kathy Davis: “Love ya, Ma!”
Davis watched her 22-year-old son, the youngest of her three boys, jog out to his car and leave, like he did any other day.
He would never return.
Johnson, not even a year out of the Marine Corps, a student struggling to readjust to civilian life, went to the tailgate but skipped the football game at Missouri State University in Springfield. Instead, he drove to the parking lot of a police station and shot himself twice in the chest.
He was buried a week later with full military honors.
For years, young veterans in Missouri like Johnson have been dying by firearm suicide at exceptionally high rates — more than older veterans and more than their peers in other states, both across the Midwest and nationally, The Kansas City Star reports.
Johnson was one of 30 Missouri veterans ages 18 to 34 to die by firearm suicide in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Dozens more have followed every year since.
Missouri outpaces other states in firearm suicides overall, and with veterans of all ages, but the number of younger veterans taking their own lives with guns stands apart, researchers said.
One of the major reasons why, experts say, is higher rates of gun ownership among veterans. In Missouri, even more than elsewhere in the U.S., guns are used in most suicides, and that’s even more true for veterans.
Johnson’s mother doesn’t know what led to her son’s suicide, but she is adamant about this: She does not blame his death on the fact that he owned guns. “I don’t think that the gun had anything to do with it,” Davis said.
Yet, research shows that easy access to a firearm can be deadly.
“There’s a lot of factors leading to this epidemic, but the most important one is guns,” said Chris Marvin, who served for seven years as a U.S. Army officer and Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He currently sits on the Everytown Veterans Advisory Council.
“It’s so clear that the gun is a leading reason why we have a suicide crisis.”
When people think about suicide among veterans, Marvin said, they tend to blame it on the trauma of combat. But many veterans, like Johnson, never saw any fighting.
Nationally, suicide prevention efforts have been underway for years, even as the death toll mounts.
The VA launched a crisis line in 2007, and four years later the U.S. Department of Defense created the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Today, the VA has suicide prevention coordinators stationed across the country, including in Kansas City.
But “the VA can’t do it alone,” said Dr. Zach Parrett, clinical psychologist and the suicide prevention coordinator at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. “It’s the community that is always with the veteran. So it’s important to empower the community and the loved ones of a veteran to recognize even the base level warning signs of suicide.”
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt has championed legislation that supports mental health care for veterans. Gov. Mike Parson signed on to the nationwide Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families.
A state agency, the Missouri Veterans Commission was formed in 1989 to aid veterans and their families and recently stepped up suicide prevention efforts.
One of the few statewide efforts in Missouri that does focus on firearms, the grassroots Safer Homes Collaborative, recruits trusted messengers among gun owners to visit firearms shops and hand out information about suicide prevention.
The group coaches gun sellers on how to encourage people to safely store their guns in times of crisis or to temporarily hand them over to someone they trust.
It is a strategy based on the idea that veterans prefer to take advice from someone who, in their eyes, has credibility on the subject of firearms. For some, it might be the only way they would hand over their guns, even temporarily and for their own safety.
Davis, though, doesn’t think that would have worked for her son.
“If I had gone up to Kindall and said, ‘Give me your gun until you’re right,’ he would have said, ‘Get out of my face,’” she said.
The last photo taken of Johnson shows him grinning in a group selfie, surrounded by his fraternity brothers at Homecoming. He shot himself just hours later.
He took his life with a handgun, one of three firearms he bought after coming home from the Marines, his mother said. He kept one in his bedside table and the other handgun and rifle locked up in his bedroom. He was a responsible gun owner, Davis said.
“For him to come home and buy his own guns was nothing shocking to me,” Davis said. “If somebody that hadn’t ever been around guns or ever had an interest and they suddenly started buying a gun, then that might have thrown up a red flag. But he was a Marine.”
After Johnson died, Davis sold the gun he shot himself with back to the gun shop where he bought it. She couldn’t stand to have it around.
Davis does not believe access to firearms put her son at greater risk of suicide. “I think if there were no guns ever around, I think in his case there would have been an alternative method,” she said.
But research shows the time people actively think about and plan to attempt suicide usually lasts only minutes. Those minutes are crucial if a gun is in reach.
Only 4% of suicide attempts without a firearm result in death, compared with about 90% of attempts using firearms.
As a little boy, Johnson wanted to be a Marine.
Anything on television about the military, he would watch — and take notes. For years, he studied what he needed to do before he could sign up.
“He was a planner and he knew exactly what he was going to do,” Davis said. “He knew that he had to be physically fit. He knew he had to be a good runner, and that’s what he focused on from the time he was 6 until he signed up at 17.”
In 2011, four days after he graduated from Willard High School, Johnson shipped off to boot camp. The Marines sent him to Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
Johnson planned for the military to be his life. But he injured his back during a training exercise and got assigned to light duty for a year.
“That was very frustrating for him because that’s not why he joined the Marine Corps,” his mother said. “He wanted to be in the middle of it, you know. And he wasn’t.”
When his back problems persisted, he received a medical retirement. He arrived back home in Willard on New Year’s Day 2015.
Within days, he enrolled at MSU with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. But his mother believes he felt a little out of place in school.
The same stressful life events that can put anyone at risk of suicide — divorce, job loss, food insecurity — distress veterans too. But some stressors are specific to them. Coming home can be one of those, as it was for Johnson.
“You have to remember the transition from active duty military into civilian life is not an easy transition,” said Jon Sabala, the veterans services director for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and an Army veteran himself.
“There’s a lot of things that are missing in civilian culture that we had in military culture. The dependency on each other. Taking care of each other. Having a very robust support system to meet our needs. To be relied on by others. So we kind of miss some of that when we leave the military community.”
The military spends months training civilians to be soldiers, Sabala said. “And then when you get ready to transition out of the military, it is very brief, it is very abrupt.”
Dr. Caitlin Thompson, vice president of community partnerships at Cohen Veterans Network and formerly the executive director of the VA’s Office of Suicide Prevention, has spent years wrestling with why younger veterans are dying by suicide at a higher rate.
The trend in Missouri reflects a nationwide increase. In 2018, the state had the 12th highest rate compared to other states.
Missouri vets 34 and younger died from suicide at a rate of 57.9 per 100,000 in 2018, compared with 44.9 for the nation.
The overall rate for that age group in the general population in the U.S. was 17.3.
Missouri veterans also used firearms in suicides more — 71% compared with the national average of about 50%.
Thompson has found younger veterans, particularly those who were not deployed overseas or who served for short periods, have internalized a belief that they don’t deserve help.
It is a misconception she has worked to correct.
Access to guns is another major reason for the increase in suicides, she said.
Nearly half of all veterans in the U.S. report owning guns, compared to only 20% of non-veterans, according to a study from Everytown for Gun Safety.
“There’s something about when a soldier takes off his uniform, and the gun goes back to the barracks room where he follows protocols and is safe with his military weapon,” said Marvin from Everytown. “But then when he goes home, he’s got his personal weapon.”
As a Marine, Johnson stood out during recruitment for the fledgling Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at MSU.
Blake Shepheard was president of the chapter when he met Johnson.
“We hadn’t seen a lot of post-veteran students joining the group,” said Shepheard, who now lives and works in Kansas City. “We were excited about that.”
Johnson, he said, was fun to be around and generous, which in college terms meant he was more apt to buy a round of drinks than try to skip out on his share of the tab. He also brought with him leadership qualities.
Six weeks before Johnson died, the fraternity posted his photo on its Facebook page, announcing that members were “stoked to be handing out bid cards. … The first bid that we gave out is to Kindall Johnson.
“He is passionate about (joining) Delta Sigma Phi because he wants to contribute to the Brotherhood and make all of his brothers a better man.”
Shepheard doesn’t recall Johnson ever saying why he wanted to join a fraternity, but thinks he might have been looking for something he had in the Marines.
“I would imagine that he was looking for that sense of camaraderie and brotherhood and belonging and opportunities to get involved on campus,” he said. “I know that he was one to bring people together, and to connect people, and I would imagine he saw that as an opportunity as well.”
New research about veterans shows social connections and community activities can help ward off feelings of isolation often associated with suicidal thoughts.
Johnson was busy outside of school, training in mixed martial arts at a gym, getting active again in church and dating, Davis said.
If anything was bothering him, she recalled, he never said.
A hurdle to suicide prevention among veterans is simply getting them to talk about what’s troubling them, experts say.
“In the earlier days of my military career it was all about not showing weakness,” Sabala said. “And so to ask for help for something, specifically a behavioral health issue, was pretty stigmatizing.
“That wasn’t really something that was easy to do. You don’t want to be the weakest link in the chain.”
A week before he died, Johnson told Shepheard and others in the fraternity that he was leaving school to check into a mental health facility.
The news “did surprise us, but I personally feel that everyone has some kinds of things that they don’t share with everyone,” Shepheard said.
Johnson was upset that he had to leave school, Shepheard said.
Davis did not know about her son’s plan and said she did not see any red flags until a disturbing incident the week before he died.
That’s when she got a call from a local 911 operator. They were looking for Johnson because he had called the emergency line “and said he was having a lot of road rage and he felt like he just wanted to ram his car into someone,” Davis recalled. “And he knew that wasn’t right, and he wanted to be connected to the veterans crisis center.”
Then, four days before Johnson died, a local police officer showed up at the house. It was someone Johnson had befriended in high school who heard about the 911 call and came for a sort of unofficial welfare check.
“Kindall came out of his room and they hugged,” Davis recalled.
The officer asked Johnson how he was doing. It was just a bad day, Johnson told him. “I’m good, I’m good,” he said.
The officer told Johnson to stay safe. Johnson thanked him for checking in.
“Then he went back into his room and watched his movie, and that was it,” Davis said.
When Dr. Angie Waliski got involved with suicide prevention at the VA, she was told it would take 10 years before she would see the change she wanted to make.
And it did.
Waliski studies suicide among veterans and started working with the VA in 2011 to add community-based suicide prevention initiatives.
In her research, Waliski has found that strong and well-resourced community organizations can make a difference in preventing suicides and encouraging veterans to talk about their mental health.
Educating friends and families of veterans about warning signs would go a long way.
Davis said she wishes the Marines or VA would have sent her information about what to watch for; they had her address, she said. She knows now the information exists, such as the “Veterans Employment Toolkit” on the VA’s website. But she didn’t know how to find it then.
“For suicide prevention, we can’t hire our way out of people wanting to die. We’re not going to ever have enough mental health providers,” Waliski said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to recruit the public to want to do this.”
Led by the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Safer Homes Collaborative began in 2018 with a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
It put boots on the ground, hiring gun enthusiasts to visit gun shops and other firearms-related businesses and organizations across Missouri to have one-on-one conversations, delivering educational materials about suicide prevention.
The initiative encourages gun owners to consider temporarily storing firearms away from home if they or someone in their household is suicidal, experiencing an emotional crisis or exhibiting a significant change in behavior.
So far the project has placed materials in more than 700 locations around the state, said Katie Ellison, who leads Safer Homes. She credits part of that success to the organization’s field coordinators, the credible messengers hired specifically because they know firearms.
“They go into the shop and they can talk guns, they can talk ammunition, they can do that relationship building, and then move into talking about preventing suicide, to safe storage of firearms,” Ellison said.
Gun shop owners, for the most part, have been open to working with Safer Homes, Ellison said. Before working with the organization, Missouri retailers weren’t sure how to be a part of suicide prevention efforts, she said.
“The gun shop project movement, so to speak, has really been only around for the past 10, 12 years, and it’s been a grassroots movement,” Ellison said.
“It’s not had the strength or the power behind it like a national media campaign, say like the drunk driving campaign … or anti-smoking campaigns. We’re 30 years behind those other campaigns. We are part of a national strategy but that messaging and training is not fully accessible to the wider audience, the wider public.”
A part of the VA’s approach to suicide prevention involves talking with veterans about their access to lethal means, particularly firearms, and creating a safety plan, says Parrett of the Kansas City VA.
“This is not about losing their rights, this is about keeping them safe and extending that time between thinking about suicide and accessing that firearm,” Parrett said.
Some strategies include using a gun safe or lock or handing them over to a trusted person.
“One way is to take that key to the gun safe or the gun lock and freeze it in a block of water and keep that in the freezer,” Parrett said. “If you’ve ever sat around waiting for ice to melt, you know that will likely be enough time for that suicidal ideation to pass.”
Shepheard can’t remember what Johnson said about why he wasn’t going to the football game on what became the last day of his life.
“We didn’t think anything of it because with the team as bad as Missouri State’s, a lot of people don’t go to the game,” Shepheard said.
Around halftime an email from Johnson popped up on Shepheard’s phone. When Johnson told them a few days earlier that he was dropping out, Shepheard had suggested Johnson write an email to the rest of the chapter explaining why he was leaving.
Shepheard assumed that’s what the email was and glanced only at the first sentences.
But after the game, his phone blew up with phone calls and texts from friends saying they were worried about Johnson because of something he had posted on Facebook.
“What’s going on?” “Have you seen him?” “Where is he?”
Around the same time, Davis read a text Johnson had sent his dad. When she saw what it said, she panicked.
She ran to her husband.
“Call 911. I’m going to call Kindall. I think he’s going to kill himself.”
The Willard police arrived quickly, and Davis could hear the back-and-forth chatter over their radios as they talked to police in Springfield.
Then suddenly, “we could hear Springfield talking back to them and we heard over the radio that the subject had … there were shots fired,” Davis said. “And my husband came in crying and said, ‘I think he just shot himself.’”
Shepheard and a couple of other frat brothers were looking for Johnson, and learned he was at the police station.
The guys headed there, and when they arrived met Johnson’s parents for the first time. They waited together — family, friends, frat brothers — to find out what was happening.
While they waited, Shepheard read the rest of the email Johnson had sent his frat brothers earlier.
It was a suicide note.
Since Johnson’s death, his mother has set off on a mission to help other veterans in crisis.
She and the Rev. Jeffrey Chavez, Johnson’s former pastor and a fellow veteran, started a nonprofit they call Change a Life, Make a Difference., found on Facebook at beKIND2ALL.
They steer veterans toward services, help them sign up for veterans benefits — even give them money for whatever might be causing them stress, be it rent or a car repair. In some cases they have paid for counseling.
They will have their third fundraising event on Sept. 11, but sometimes Davis digs into her own pocket to help a vet.
She puts a lot of stock and hope into efforts that involve veterans working with fellow veterans. She had one such organization at the first fundraiser. The vets talked about how to keep guns safe in the homes of veterans suffering with PTSD and how to do that “calmly, without accusations, because it’s a tender time,” she said.
She knows how that feels. One night after she buried her son, she, too, fell into despair.
“I can remember laying down in front of the fireplace thinking I’m so tired, I’m just going to shut my eyes. And then my very next thought was wouldn’t it be great if I never had to open my eyes again,” she said.
“And then the next split second I’m thinking, what would that do to my other children and my husband?
“Luckily my mind was in a place where I could see the other side. I think when you are in such a dark place, where taking your life is the solution, I think that part of your brain just shuts down to where you just can’t see. And I think a split second later, there’s regret.”
To this day she believes that her son parked his car in the parking lot of a police station so she wouldn’t be the person to find him. He knew, she said, that whoever found him there would likely be a trained professional.
Along with his backpack, and a notebook and pen in his car, Johnson left a note for that person.
“Stay strong,” he wrote.