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Her veteran son didn’t get the mental help he needed before he died, so she helps other vets in his memory

Drew Winkler and his son in 2014.
Courtesy photo
Drew Winkler and his son in 2014.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, one of the topics under study by the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida.

For Rebecca Winkler and the entire Winkler family, suicide prevention is yearlong.

“His dad is retired Air Force, and he wanted to go into the military, so he did," said Winkler, whose son Drew, was 26 when he died by suicide on Memorial Day, 2016.

His first base was Aviano, Italy from where he was deployed to Iraq after he volunteered for the duty. The problems began, Winkler said, after he returned from the deployment.

“Driving cars fast, jumping from roof to roof, doing just really ridiculous things; self-medicating with alcohol and all of that,” Winkler said. “He was diagnosed with PTSD while at Aviano, before he was actually put out of the military."

When Drew returned home, Winkler says he would withdraw from contact with others.
About two weeks after that, Winkler says her son “crashed.”

“Well, come to find out, when the Air Force put him out, they didn't send him with a 90-day or any additional supply of medication that they had him on,” Winkler said. “So, he basically crashed. I got him to the VA, took him in, and they got him on different medications for PTSD.”

The VA twice rejected his application — once because his claim for PTSD did not meet its criteria for the disorder, the other for alcohol withdrawal and marijuana use. Meanwhile, things for Drew were getting worse.

“When he got a job back at a place he worked before at the call center; he was in the call center, and towards the end he was actually taking calls, sitting under his desk with a hoodie over him to try and keep everything out.”

“He couldn't be in large groups," she continued. "He couldn't be around loud sounds [that would cause flashbacks into Iraq and stuff that happened over there],” said Winkler. “In fact, every time he got a new med, his brother, who was his next door neighbor, and his girlfriend would say, ‘oh, let me read the side effects.’ And they go down and he'd be like, ‘Yup, yup. No, I don't have any thoughts of suicide, so we're okay on that’ to include one of the last meds that he got.”

The day he died, Winkler posted on his Facebook page “1 of 22 per day... whely (sic) can't they just help us... goodbye.” He was referencing the #22ADay movement.

After Drew’s passing, Rebecca Winkler and her family also had to put up with a chorus of “I told you so’s.”

“You know, you'll hear people say, ‘oh, you should have known. You should have seen signs,’” she said. “Well, that's not always the case with mental illness. We have come to realize in dealing with our son and in dealing with other veterans who suffer from PTSD, is that they become very, very proficient in only letting people see what people need to see, to think they're OK.”

Preventing suicide and other forms of self-harm is not only more sensitive, but also ranks high on the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida’s priority list.

“Suicide is sort of the extreme end of the spectrum or the continuum of mental health challenges; so that's ultimately the thing that we're trying to avoid,” said Rachelle Burns, a regional director for the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, covering Escambia through Walton Counties. Job number one, she says, is noticing the warning signs.

“Things like someone withdrawing who might normally have been engaged with friends and family. Someone who may be giving away possessions and saying, ‘I'm not going to need this anymore,’” Burns said. “Someone who perhaps is using or abusing alcohol or other substances more than they were previously.”

In and of themselves, Burns says each warning sign is not necessarily a sign of possible suicide, but when adds when they’re lumped in together, that should cause more concern. She adds that some groups bear a closer watch than others — such as white, middle-age males.

“It's thought that part of that is access to lethal means, because so many white, middle-aged males are firearm owners,” said Burns. “When you have access to something that can be deadly so quickly, that it's very hard to then rescue someone or save wanted.”

There’s not much in the way of new techniques in treating suicidal clients, said Burns. But she adds that the task force has made new inroads in collaboration and the impact they can make, when they work together.

“For example, new relationships and connections are made between organizations like the Suicide Prevention Coalition and a Escambia EMS, where we're working together to address the community's mental health needs and prevent suicide,” she explained. “That's where synergy happens.”

The bottom line, said Burns, is that suicide prevention is up to everyone, and anyone can help in some way or another. That can begin with tapping into the treasure trover of information that’s online.

“And understanding that the most important thing we can do for someone that we're concerned about who may be at risk, is just to ask them directly, ‘Are you having thoughts of suicide?’ It can be a little scary, but it's so worth asking that question and being able to connect them with services and people who can help.”

Rebecca Winkler, top center, with the veterans group.
Winkler’s Wish Foundation
Rebecca Winkler, top center, with the veterans group.

Meantime, the Winkler family has turned their grief over Drew’s suicide into a foundation to raise awareness to prevention. Winkler’s Wish, based in Crestview, focuses on veterans suffering from PTSD.

“The first Monday of every month at the Cross Point South Church, we do a peer mentor, veteran dinner get-together at no cost to them,” Winkler said. “Winkler's Wish is, to my knowledge, the only veteran support group that allows them to bring other people -- wives or girlfriends [and] I don't care if they have a roommate that lives with them.”

For veterans, and anyone else for that matter, who may be contemplating suicide, Winkler has this message.

“I understand that with what they're going through, they likely are feeling that the world would be better off without them. Their loved ones would be better off without them,” she said. “I would want them to understand that there is no way in this world that is better without them than with them.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889). Or dial 988.

For suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.