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updated: 11/11/2017 8:38 AM

No one left behind: One man's mission to save troubled vets

One suburban veteran who survived two suicide attempts shares how he's turned his life around and now helps others

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  • Video: Darian Blanks Sr.'s journey

  • Darian Blanks Sr. is an Iraq War veteran who twice attempted suicide, but now, five years into recovery, aims for a career helping veterans cope with trauma and improve their mental health.

      Darian Blanks Sr. is an Iraq War veteran who twice attempted suicide, but now, five years into recovery, aims for a career helping veterans cope with trauma and improve their mental health.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Darian Blanks Sr., 30, of Oswego served in the Air Force in Iraq, returning home with traumatic memories that led him to try twice to take his own life. Today, he encourages other veterans at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he studies social work, to seek help for their mental health needs.

    Darian Blanks Sr., 30, of Oswego served in the Air Force in Iraq, returning home with traumatic memories that led him to try twice to take his own life. Today, he encourages other veterans at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he studies social work, to seek help for their mental health needs.
    Courtesy of Darian Blanks Sr.

  • Air Force veteran Darian Blanks of Oswego is president of the Student Veterans of America chapter and the Social Work Association at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he is studying social work to learn to counsel fellow veterans.

      Air Force veteran Darian Blanks of Oswego is president of the Student Veterans of America chapter and the Social Work Association at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he is studying social work to learn to counsel fellow veterans.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
First of two parts.

Darian Blanks Sr. tells his story with a lack of emotion, almost as if he's ordering a cup of coffee.

"I've had two suicide attempts," he says. "Both near-fatal."

The 30-year-old Air Force veteran lived to talk about it. Many others don't.

Across the country, 20 veterans die by suicide each day. In Illinois, it's one every 45 hours.

Haunted by memories of one especially traumatic day in Iraq, Blanks returned from deployment and couldn't sleep. He tried drinking himself into oblivion. He tried isolation, even from his son and his wife. The couple would divorce.

He was still on active duty in 2010 when he first tried to end his life. Two treatment facilities' strategies to "medicate and release" failed him.

Blanks then retired from his job as an Air Force intelligence analyst and returned to his suburban roots in Aurora. But two years later, the inner turmoil remained.

"I had the isolation feeling, the self-medicating with alcohol, the restless nights, the insomnia," Blanks says. "I felt isolated, like no one would understand."

He tried again to end his life on April 27, 2012, the day he turned 25. After his release from a downstate hospital, his mother took him to Linden Oaks Behavioral Health Hospital in Naperville. He soon connected to further treatment through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Five years into recovery, Blanks, who now lives in Oswego, says his life has taken a 180-degree turn for the better. He's begun practicing what experts on veterans' mental health say is a key to a healthy mind: giving back.

Blanks is studying social work at Lewis University in Romeoville, where he is president of its chapter of Student Veterans of America and of its student Social Work Association. He wants to finish his studies and become a social worker for the VA, which he said needs a larger network of veteran providers who understand the military experience.

Perhaps most importantly, he got involved nearly two years ago with state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a Marine veteran who headed a state task force on veteran suicides. The group's work led to creation of a state law Gov. Bruce Rauner signed in September.

Effective Jan. 1, it requires the state VA to help vets stabilize their mental health by improving training, outreach to those who served in combat, access to education and employment, veteran-to-veteran assistance, and family preparation for the emotional cycle of returning from deployment.

"It's a really bold statement that the state of Illinois is making to our veterans," says Kifowit, of Oswego. "'We want to end veteran suicide. We want to be there for you.'"

No one understands

As the task force conducted hearings last year, Kifowit and fellow legislators state Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park and state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton say themes emerged about veterans' mental and emotional struggles post-deployment.

Commonalities included: traumatic memories, a sudden loss of purpose and camaraderie, guilt from carrying out acts of violence required during war, depression, detachment from daily activities, and the sense that no one in civilian life understands.

"Sometimes it's the veteran's perception that 'people don't understand what I went through.' It leads to isolation. It can create significant problems," says Michael Brennan, a psychologist and clinical director of the Road Home Program for Veterans and their Families at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "That can exacerbate the problem and result in someone thinking of a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

At task force hearings in Grayslake, Sugar Grove, Springfield, Belleville and River Grove, relatives shared stories of veterans who couldn't or didn't get help before taking their lives.

"They weren't sure how to reach out," says Cullerton, an Army veteran who served during the 1990s but did not see combat. "The hardest part in the military is you aren't necessarily sure where you can go. You're given all this paperwork constantly. It doesn't necessarily direct you."

'This pride issue'

While many veterans recover from the trauma of combat, Brennan says the mind's coping mechanisms can be stunted by patterns of avoidance or depression. Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers can help veterans through these harmful patterns, and veterans can access these professionals through the VA.

But a majority of those most in need don't.

A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study of 55 million records from 1979 to 2014 showed only six of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day are users of VA services. The study didn't take into acount how many veterans received mental health services through private insurance. Veterans place part of the blame on military culture.

"We have this pride issue in the military," Blanks says, "where if you reach out, you're considered weak."

Beyond the impression of weakness, some veterans say they don't trust the VA or any services coming from the government. Others feel unworthy.

"I've heard a lot of guys who don't even want to ask the VA for help because they don't feel they deserve it," says James Spencer, a 44-year-old Army veteran from Elgin who persevered through thoughts of killing himself after his brother, a Navy veteran, died by suicide. "They did their duty and they don't want to feel like they're a drain on the resources. Maybe somebody else deserves it more than they do."

But left untreated, conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or survivors' guilt can "snowball" into substance abuse, extreme risk-taking and self-harm, or worse, says Henry Tyler, a 59-year-old Army veteran of Joliet and veteran peer specialist for the National Alliance on Mental Illness' DuPage County branch in Wheaton.

Tyler says some are drawn to taking their lives because "you're a failure and there's no hope. That the best part of your life is behind you. That's the kind of emotional anguish that veterans are dealing with."

• If you or a loved one is in crisis, go to the nearest emergency room, visit the Veterans Crisis Line at www.veteranscrisisline.net, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. or call (800) 273-8255, the number for both services.

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