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January 4, 2013

Vet's mom: 'My son was as kind and strong as they come'

BEULAH — Eric Lewis Harm's mother said her son was as an incredibly benevolent, caring person, and that his family will — over time — find the best way to honor the combat veteran's life.

"My son was as kind and as strong as they come. They don't come any stronger," Penny Cox, of Copemish, said Thursday. "Eric always put everybody else first."

Harm, 24, was a decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan from January 2011 to January 2012. He died in Manistee County Dec. 28, some four months after he completed active duty. His aunt, Dwin Dykema, said mental trauma the combat veteran suffered from war played a role in a decision to take his own life.

Harm's mother said Thursday the family will announce a charity or foundation at a later date that they believe best honors Harm's life. A fledgling online effort by Dykema seeks to raise money for funeral expenses, but Harm's mother said "we are not asking for money." If people are inclined to make financial donations in her son's name, she prefers they go to a charity or foundation to be named later.

"I would ask people to give his father and I time to first be able to wrap our heads around this so we can investigate some foundations and charities to honor our son's name," Cox said.

The tragedy of Harm's death comes amid growing calls nationwide for action to stem a staggering increase in suicides among veterans and soldiers. New statistics released Thursday show more soldiers committed suicide in 2012 than died in combat. NBC News reported that as of November, 177 active-duty soldiers took their own lives. In all of 2012, 176 soldiers were killed in combat.

USA Today reports suicide rates for the military are now higher than those of the general population. Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs says 18 veterans take their own lives every day in America.

Chris Miller is a national veterans advocate raised in Illinois who served two tours in Iraq and received the Purple Heart. He said service members and veterans taking their own lives is a severe crisis that deserves the nation's immediate attention.

"Thirty (plus) active duty (a month ) — that's a platoon size of soldiers lost in a month," Miller said. "A battalion of veterans lost every month to suicide. An absolute epidemic is the way I would describe it."

The challenges veterans face are extremely complex, he said, and difficult for those who aren't veterans to understand.

"You come back during times like these, and they are not exactly good economic times," Miller said. "I know people who come back, wanting to put the war behind them and find a job, yet they can't find a job delivering pizzas. Veterans need more help."

The U.S. Army is deeply concerned about an increasing number of suicides, dedicating a full day of training in September to the issue.

Bob Roelofs is in training as a service officer for the Benzie County Veterans Affairs office. He said there are local resources available for struggling veterans, and that veterans should never be afraid to ask for help. Veterans and their family members can contact their local county veterans affairs office, the Vet Center on N. U.S. 31 in Traverse City (935-0051) or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 for confidential help.

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