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Former soldiers, politicians and mental health advocates gathered Saturday to recognize Minnesota's first Veterans Suicide Prevention and Awareness Day.

The group convened under soppy conditions at North St. Paul Veterans Park with the primary goal of publicly committing to raising awareness about suicide among U.S. veterans.

"Today is important. It is a right step forward," said Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. "By making people in the veterans' community — employers, clergy, family members, for example — aware of some of the signs to look for, it will help not just veterans, but also society as a whole because suicide is a problem across the U.S."

In 2017, 45,390 American adults died by suicide, including 6,139 U.S. veterans, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report published last month by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

Suicides are on the rise across the United States. From 2005 to 2017, suicide deaths increased nearly 44% in the general population and more than 6% in the veteran population, the new report found.

Alissa Harrington lost her younger brother, Marine Corps veteran Justin Miller, to suicide in February 2018. She implored the crowd to talk openly about their loved ones while avoiding making their death their defining attribute.

"Every time we talk about them," Harrington said, "we help break down that stigma."

The rate of veteran suicides is 1.5 times higher than that of non-veteran adults, and even higher among women and younger vets.

"The statistics … are deeply troubling," Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan told the crowd. "Our veterans face unique challenges when returning home."

This is the first time Minnesota has formally set aside a day to remind people about, and hopefully prevent, veteran suicides. The Minnesota Legislature in March established the day on the first Saturday of every October.

Each person's situation is different, said Herke, who served in the Army National Guard for 30 years, but there's usually a trigger event, like a divorce, financial problems, loss of a family member or addiction, that leads people to take their own lives.

"People in the military are supposed to demonstrate they don't have weakness, especially to people in their chain of command," Herke said. "You learn to be the tough gal or tough guy. The Army, and armed forces in general, have gotten better at encouraging them to ask for help, but there's still a lot of pride there."

Veterans, or those who know a veteran struggling with thoughts of suicide, are encouraged to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text at 838255.

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767