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Zero Suicides campaign: Veterans working to help fellow service members cope

Marine Corps veteran Julio Torres talks about the struggles of coming home from war and battling suicidal impulses. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

There are around 40,000 military veterans who live in Kern County. While they were willing to risk everything for our freedom, many want to take their lives after what they experienced in service.

“It was brutal. It was pretty brutal,” said Marine Corps veteran Julio Torres. “I hit an all-time low in the barracks one night.”

Raquel Barraza, another Marine Corps veteran, also struggled during her service.

“So, I guess since we're here now to say it out loud, I have thought of and attempted suicide,” admitted Barraza.

Barraza and Torres, both, at one point, didn't see themselves as a part of the world they were saving.

MORE | Zero Suicides: Kern County, Eyewitness News breaking silence to save lives | More Zero Suicides stories

“It's not just veterans who went out into combat and had to deal with the war fighting,” said Barraza.

Barraza was a public affairs and community relations specialist with the Marines. During her service, she was sexually assaulted.

“I didn't feel like I was deserving anymore. So, that's when I didn't want to fight anymore,” said Barraza.

Torres served two tours in Iraq, witnessing brutal battles, and began losing the fight for his own good with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“I never thought in a million years I'd harm myself,” said Torres. “I got real drunk, and I woke up in the morning, and I cut my wrists. I sliced my wrists.”

He said he tried to commit suicide twice.

The latest statistics show that every day in this country 20 veterans take their lives.

“I felt like I was sinking, and I couldn't get out of it. As much as I tried and wanted to be in a good place, I couldn't get there by myself,” said Barraza.

“It's kind of drilled into us to keep soldiering on, so to seek help is a challenge,” said Jenny Frank, Marine Corps veteran and the outreach specialist for the Bakersfield Veterans Center.

Frank said after a person serves, they are asked about any potential mental problems.

“They'll ask you, as a group, do you have PTSD? Is anybody having problems? No one is raising their hands. Nobody is raising their hands,” said Frank.

It's Frank’s mission to raise awareness of the help Kern County offers to its veterans who are silently suffering from PTSD or sexual assault.

And, she said those with traumatic brain injuries are three times more likely to attempt suicide. Frank also reaches out to vet families so they know how to recognize warning signs. She said things like seclusion, substance abuse, giving away personal possessions, and talking about wanting to end it all are red flags.

“Almost every time you meet one veteran they have never spoken about their experience until the spoke to you, because they are comfortable with a veteran. Just ask the question: Are you thinking about taking your life?” said Frank.

Torres and Barraza both went through months of counseling with the Marines. For Torres, though, it took the strength of Zeus, a 120-pound therapy dog that pulled him out of his dark place.

“He turned the world around for me and made me start understanding what's on the other side,” said Torres.

Today, Torres is using his life experiences and training emotional support service dogs for other veterans going through similar struggles with the Wounded Heroes Fund. And, Barraza has joined him, as his training assistant.

“I've seen dogs change. But I've seen veterans change even more,” said Barraza. “They have this confidence back. They have this control back.”

“It took time for me to finally understand where my place is in this world,” said Torres.

They are two veteran lives saved, and battling to save all of their brothers and sisters, to bring the number of suicides to zero in Kern County.

“I wish it were as easy as waving a wand. But, I think if any community can do it, it's our community. Really,” said Frank.

The local Veterans Center and the VA Clinic both offer counseling services, both individual and group, which are customized to veterans and for family members as well.

And there are specific suicide crisis lines for veterans.

The Veteran Crisis Line is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Press 1 for help.

They have also included a text option.

Or, you can call the Combat Call Center at 877-WAR-VETS.

If you're interested in learning about the support service dog program, go here.

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