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Her veteran son didn’t get needed mental care before his suicide. She helps other vets in his memory

Drew Winkler shown with his son in 2014. Two years later, after a deployment with the Air Force to Iraq, he committed suicide.
Family photo
Drew Winkler shown with his son in 2014. Two years later, after a deployment with the Air Force to Iraq, he committed suicide.

Her son was diagnosed with PTSD while he was in the Air Force, and after his deployment he showed suicidal signs that she didn't recognize. Now, she is turning the tragedy into help for others.

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.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, but for North Florida mother Rebecca Winkler, suicide prevention is a yearlong endeavor.

“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 says. “So, he was actually put out of the military. He was diagnosed with (post-traumatic stress disorder) while at Aviano.”

When Drew returned home to Crestview, Winkler says, he would withdraw from contact with others.

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

About two weeks after, 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 link 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 Department of Veterans Affairs twice rejected his application — once for incomplete paperwork, then for alcohol withdrawal and marijuana use. Meanwhile, things for Drew were getting worse, she says.

“He couldn't be in large groups; he couldn't be around loud sounds," which 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 OK 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,which was developed to bring awareness to the crisis of veterans suicide. The reference is to a VA study that estimated 22 veterans take their lives each day.

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

“You know, you'll hear people say, ‘Oh, you should have known. You should have seen signs,’” she saya. “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,” says Rachelle Burns, a regional director for the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, covering Escambia through Walton counties.

Job 1, she says, is noticing 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 says. “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 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,” saysBurns. “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, says 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 explains. “That's where synergy happens.”

The bottom line, saysvBurns, 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 formed to raise awareness of suicide prevention, with a focus on veterans with PTSD.

Meantime, Rebecca Winkler has turned her 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 says. “Winkler's Wish is 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 says. “I would want them to understand that there is no way in this world that is better without them than with them.”

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

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Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.