In Vermont, of all the deaths by gunshot wounds in the last six years, more than a quarter were suicides by current or former members of the armed forces. Even though Veterans Affairs knows that soldiers are at greater risk of taking their own lives, it’s difficult to intervene successfully.
Now, one Vermont mom who lost her son has made it her mission to end veteran suicide.
Josh Pallotta, 25, was one of those Vermont veterans who took his own life. He died in 2014. His mother Valerie Pallotta of Colchester is trying to create a space where veterans can socialize and also get treatment.
Valerie says her son Josh took an early interest in the military.
“I think he was about seven when he wrote a little story in a journal that he wanted to be a soldier, and then he did," Valerie says.
A few years after high school, he was working in airport security for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Some of his co-workers were in the National Guard, and Valerie says that’s when Josh's interest spiked. He signed up just as the Vermont Army National Guard was deploying to Afghanistan.
“I remember him coming home and saying he joined the Guard," Valerie says, "and I said ‘you know, you’re going to Afghanistan,’ and he said ‘that’s why I’m going, that’s why I’m signing up, mom.’ ”
Josh deployed to Afghanistan and was there for most of 2010. In August, two members of his unit were killed: Tristan Southworth and Steven Deluzio. That hit Josh hard, Valerie says. Then in December, he returned home to Vermont.
“There’s a part where you’re kind of walking on eggshells and you want to make sure they’re OK and give them their space, and give them time to rest and recover," Valerie says. "Then there’s the part of so, now it’s time to get back to life, and you have mixed emotions.”
Getting back to life was hard for Josh. That’s not unusual for veterans returning from deployment.
“When you’re back in the United States and back in civilian culture, you don’t have those close connections and dependence on one another,” says Brian Barrows, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army.
Barrows is now a crisis clinician with First Call of Chittenden County, a suicide prevention organization.
"You hit the pause button when you go deploy, and life keeps moving," Barrows says. "When you get home, you have to play catch-up. It's not easy. It's not easy to adjust to a completely different world."
Josh Pallotta's Guard unit didn’t meet for three months after they returned, according to his mom, Valerie.
He also had trouble adjusting to an early-morning work schedule at TSA. Valerie says Josh had lots of support, including from a Veterans Affairs counselor, but he ended up losing his job, and moved back home.
“We kind of played the tough love parenting and told him he needed to find a job by a certain date, which gave him about three months, and he couldn’t find a job so he knew he had to leave," Valerie says.
"Things kind of went downhill after that. He had asked me to borrow money and I told him no, thinking tough love would help with that too. And then he stopped speaking to me, and we didn’t speak before he died.”
Before his death, Josh was diagnosed with PTSD, Valerie says. Though she says things started to improve for him in 2014. He found an apartment and a job at a sandwich shop in Burlington, but then the shop – Guild Fine Meats – announced it was shutting down. Valerie says that was the last straw for Josh.
On September 23rd, 2014 at 2:53 in the morning, Valerie woke to knocking at her door. Police were outside her house.
“I opened the door and they said, ‘Valerie Pallotta?’ And I said, ‘yes,’ and I’m of course shaking, Valerie recalls. "They said ‘is your husband here?’ and he was right behind me. And then they came in and said ‘I’m sorry to tell you that your son took his own life.’ ”
Joshua Pallotta’s cause of death is listed as a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The VA estimates that, on average, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. That’s why the department does check-ins with deployed members of the military before they go home. But Brian Barrows, the veteran who now works in suicide prevention, says those assessments aren't always effective.
“If you have to sit down with a clinician that asks if you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, you’re going to say ‘no’ as quickly as you can," Barrows says. "You’re just creating another barrier to getting home if you say 'yes.’ ”
There are other opportunities to identify veterans who are having problems. Meghan Snitkin is the Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the White River Junction VA. She says whenever a veteran is hospitalized for psychiatric care or expresses a concern about their mental health, the veteran works with their care provider to complete what’s called a risk assessment.
"Once we kind of have a better understanding and history of that risk, then we can have a better idea of how to help them come up with a plan about how to keep themselves safe," Snitkin says.
Snitkin says that plan is about making the veteran's environment as safe as possible. That could include safely storing their firearms during a crisis.
"So we’re not saying that they shouldn’t own a firearm, and we’re not saying they shouldn’t have access to one," Snitkin says. "But maybe during this high risk period of time to try to keep that separation."
The plan could include disassembling a weapon, storing ammunition separately from a gun, or having a family member or friend hold a firearm during a particularly risky time period.
For many veterans, firearm ownership is an important part of life. That was certainly true for Josh Pallotta. Josh posted publicly on Facebook about guns and second amendment rights.
Valerie says even if he had limited his access to guns, she's doesn't think it would’ve made a difference.
"I do think that Josh would've found another way," Valerie says. "I think when a person is ready to end their life or end their pain, they'll find whatever means they can to do that."
Valerie says she’s not sure if there’s one thing that could have saved Josh. In addition to counseling and medication, the VA offers some alternative treatments at many of its health centers. Valerie thinks those should be readily available for veterans returning from combat.
“I think going on a whitewater rafting trip probably has more effect than some doing group therapy, because they don’t want to talk about it," Valerie says. "They want to sit around a campfire and just shoot the breeze with their buddy, and then maybe talk about it.”
Valerie now runs a non-profit fund in her son’s name. Her goal is to eventually create a space called Josh’s House where veterans could meet to exercise, play video games, cook, or study. Sort of like a Veterans of Foreign Wars post for a younger generation.
Valerie is busy these days. She has a full-time job, and works on the fund in her spare time. Plus, she’s spending a lot of time getting tattoos. Both her arms are covered in colorful ink: all images in tribute to Josh. She didn’t have any tattoos before he died.
“I can just see him shaking his head ‘oh, mom,’ Valerie says with a laugh, "and then also being like, ‘wow, mom!' "
So far, Valerie says her fund has raised about $140,000. She expects to need around $1 million to create a new space for veterans.
VPR's Gunshots series explores the role of guns in life — and death — in Vermont through commentary, data and in depth reporting.