Few of us are fortunate enough to ever figure out what our true mission in life really is.
But Kellie Lafave is fortunate. She knows her mission.
“My first love taught me lessons that it’s taken nearly 40 years to understand,” said Lafave, who heads up VA’s Suicide Prevention Team in Montana. “I was 20 years old, in love with an Army Ranger who fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He sparkled with creativity. He came home and died by his own hand.”
Lafave said the loss not only left her unspeakably sad, but angry.
“I was unable to fathom how someone whose light shined so brightly could end his life,” she said. “That was before we knew how preventable suicide is and understood how important it is to talk about.”
Lafave, a registered nurse, said she didn’t grow up wanting to be a Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“After I worked for decades as a nurse in VA medical centers in Wyoming and Montana, just as my grandmother had, VA introduced its national Suicide Prevention Program,” she explained. “And I knew then that was what I wanted — needed — to do. It was my way of saying to my Ranger, ‘Now I know better.’”
“I know we can make a difference with our Veterans, one person at a time,” she added. “I lost someone close to me; if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently. This is my gift back.”
Listen to the Veterans in your life.
Ask how they’re doing.
Montana, where Lafave works, has both the third-highest Veteran population per capita and third-highest suicide rate among the general population in the nation. Working in a region so vast and remote poses unique challenges for her, since many of the state’s Veterans are scattered far and wide.
“I reach as many as I can,” she said. “My business card says Suicide Prevention Coordinator, but I consider myself a life preservationist. I connect people with the right benefits, a mental health counselor — or I simply listen. I crisscross the state in my Ford Escape, Motown on the stereo, teaching people how to detect the warning signs of suicide in Veterans they care about.”
Lafave said that when she began her job seven years ago, she received only three or four crisis calls a month from people in remote homesteads threatening to take their lives.
“Since then, the Veterans Crisis Line has changed things dramatically,” she said. “Now, one or two Veterans are referred to me every day. Awareness of available support is growing. And many of the Veterans I talk to are feeling overwhelmed, rather than trying to end their lives.”
The registered nurse said she can now connect people to care sooner, whether they’re having relationship or money problems, or feeling anxious or angry.
“VA has built a stronger network of support,” she observed. “To a Veteran who feels hopeless, isolated on a Montana prairie, or to a spouse unsure where to turn, the Veterans Crisis Line can mean the difference between living and dying.”
Lafave remembers an incident that occurred seven years ago, when she first began her suicide prevention work.
“A young Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran called me, sobbing as he drove,” she said. “He told me, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ I stayed on the line with him, persuading him to drive to the VA hospital 90 minutes away. I met him at the entrance, helped admit him and made sure he was safe. Now he has finished school, remarried and started a family.”
“If I can make a difference in just one Veteran’s life, then that’s what I’m going to do. It’s heartbreaking to me when a Veteran is lost. But that redoubles my energy to help people be aware of suicide risks.”
“When we build that safety net together,” she added, “we become powerful.”
Lafave said mental health care and suicide prevention awareness should be as clearly understood as the warning signs for a heart attack.
“Good health means body, mind and soul,” she said. “If my Ranger were here, I would tell him: ‘Preventing suicide is about taking care of all of us.’”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or send a text to 838255.
To learn more about this free, confidential 24-hour service, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention