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By Diane Bell
Monday, Oct. 25, 2021 | 2 a.m.
An average of 17 military veterans die each day by suicide, and 69% of those deaths are by gun.
“It just blew my mind that the numbers were that high,” said Shavon “Shay” DeBarr, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. She now lives in Oceanside, Calif., but continues working remotely as a civilian human resources specialist for the Marine Corps base in nearby Twentynine Palms.
She became aware of the grim statistics when a friend urged her to take part in a national campaign called “End Family Fire.” It focuses on veterans of different Armed Forces branches telling their firearms stories in a series of public service announcements airing in October, which is Suicide Prevention Month.
DeBarr was especially surprised at the number of women vets who resorted to suicide by gun.
The 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report attributed 49.9% of female veteran suicides to guns in 2019 — an increase of more than 20% from the previous year.
Guns have been part of DeBarr’s life since childhood on her family’s farm in Virginia, where she grew up shooting at cans in her backyard.
When she went through boot camp, she was taught that her M16 rifle was her best friend. “You’d go to the bathroom with it, sleep with it. They’d make you name it,” she recalled. Of course, she also was taught gun safety.
After 20 years of active duty, you feel naked if you don’t have a firearm, DeBarr said. It becomes part of you.
She didn’t think twice about keeping a gun in her nightstand, or in a kitchen drawer or even under her couch — until she married a Marine with two sons.
“They were teenagers, and kids might want to show off a gun to their friends and say, ‘Let me show you what my dad has or my mom has,’ ” DeBarr said.
With kids in the house, a locked gun cabinet wasn’t a viable option because keys can be found and locks can be picked. So DeBarr and her husband, Travis, invested in a gun safe.
While no veterans truly close to her have died by shooting themselves, DeBarr has heard many harrowing tales involving fellow Marines.
One of the most chilling was at the memorial service for 13 U.S. service members killed by a bomb in Afghanistan during the final days of the U.S. evacuation in late August.
A Marine she knew, but didn’t work directly with, spoke at a Camp Pendleton memorial vigil, voicing a plea to those who returned from the Afghanistan war zone not to be afraid to reach out for help.
He shared his own story of having hosted a reception at his home. A friend, who knew he kept a gun in his night stand, excused himself to use the bathroom, grabbed the pistol in the bedroom drawer and killed himself.
“He had no idea his friend was mentally depressed,” DeBarr said. If the gun had not been sitting in an unlocked drawer, that day would have been far different.
“You never know what someone’s mindset is when you walk into their home, or they walk into yours. What if I’m having a bad day or a bad year?”
When I spoke to DeBarr, she had been contacted that day by a fellow Marine who told her he had listened to her gun safety message on the PSA.
The father of four kids confessed that he hadn’t thought about the danger to family friends.
“It made me think,” he told DeBarr. “I’m going out with my wife to look at safes this weekend.”
Gun safes are a luxury for active duty military, who are prone to move every two to three years as assignments change, DeBarr acknowledged. The government sets a weight allowance for the move, and transporting a heavy gun safe means sacrificing other possessions.
Proper storage of firearms was the subject of a recent Facebook Live panel that featured DeBarr and other veterans.
It was part of the “End Family Fire” information campaign co-hosted by the Brady United Against Gun Violence nonprofit group and the Ad Council. Details and tips are on EndFamilyFire.org.
Statistics compiled by the Brady group are sobering:
Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than other American adults —and the majority ofvet suicide deaths (69%) involve a firearm, compared with roughly half (48%) for civilians.
Guns are the deadliest method of suicide: 90% of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal, compared with only 4% of suicide attempts by other means.
Nearly half of all veterans own at least one firearm, and access to a firearm in the household triples the risk of a suicide death.
Most suicide attempts are undertaken during moments of temporary crisis.
“Our hope is that these PSAs will help to bring awareness to the need for safe storage to reduce the risk of suicide by gun by placing time and space between a veteran thinking of suicide and an accessible, usable firearm,” noted Brady United President Kris Brown when the campaign was announced.
For DeBarr, the PSA project was a learning experience: “I have no idea how I was selected, but I’m thankful I was.”
Diane Bell is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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