Veteran suicide is on the rise — and a local garden reaches out to victims’ families

Saving Lives At The Idaho Veterans Garden

The Idaho Veterans Garden is a place for veterans to commune with one another in a healing atmosphere, but also to reintegrate into the larger community. Donations and thousands of volunteer hours support the garden.
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The Idaho Veterans Garden is a place for veterans to commune with one another in a healing atmosphere, but also to reintegrate into the larger community. Donations and thousands of volunteer hours support the garden.

James Daniel Hume, who went by “J.D.,” came from a working family. His dad, Leslie, spent his 30-year career at the Land O’ Lakes Purina Feed plant in Caldwell before it burned down. His mom, Laurita, works part time in the bakery department at Walmart.

After J.D. graduated from Wilder High School, he joined the Idaho Army National Guard to help pay for college. He got his associate degree in computer science from Boise State.

“He was my computer guy. Every once in awhile he gets yelled at for not being here to help me,” Laurita said.

After serving two tours in Iraq over the course of more than a decade, Hume returned to Idaho. He was under care through the Boise VA Medical Center and struggling with mental illness. In the late spring of 2015, the 33-year-old Hume took his own life.

June Pugmire is among the members of the Treasure Valley community who tend raised beds at the Idaho Community Garden in Caldwell.

The Humes are among the families who keep memorial beds for their fallen veterans at the Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell. Four of those beds, including theirs, are for veterans who died by suicide.

The high rate of veteran suicides — an average of 20 each day in the U.S. in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — has inspired prevention programs across the country. That includes one at the Boise VA Medical Center.

More than 300 area veterans connected with medical mental health services through local suicide programs and hotlines in 2015. The Boise medical center placed 80 local veterans on the “high risk” for suicide list in 2015.

Josh Callihan, VA Medical Center spokesman, said he can’t provide an exact number of local veteran suicides or suicide attempts because not every veteran is under VA care and not every attempt or completion is reported.

So Dan Pugmire, a disabled Air Force veteran and manager at the Idaho Veterans Garden, speaks from his own experience. Since the garden opened its gates in 2013, Pugmire and his wife, June, have reached out to 13 Idaho families who lost veterans to suicide to invite them to join the garden community. Currently, four of them have beds.

In addition to offering the garden as a healing place, the Pugmires give small ceramic hearts with bandages to grieving families.

“The families are still around, whether or not their veterans are,” Pugmire said. “We all leave this world chipped up around the edges. We’re just trying to make those damages hurt not quite so bad.”

The Pugmires contacted the Humes to join the garden after learning of J.D.’s death. This year, the Humes planted tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beets, peas, marigolds and geraniums in their memorial bed. Bulbs for spring tulips and daffodils are already in the ground. Leslie Hume has COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but went to the garden every day during the growing season to water his plants. He’s already planning how he’s going to plant the bed next year.

The Humes have other outlets for their grief. Laurita attends meetings of NOMS (Not One More Suicide), a survivors of suicide support group where she can talk to people with similar losses.

“When J.D. died, part of me went. I carried him for nine months,” Laurita said. “I’ve read that loss of a child is harder on a mom because you have that physical bond.”

She organized a team and walked in J.D.’s memory in the recent Out of the Darkness Walk at Meridian’s Kleiner Park.

Laurita and Leslie have fond memories of their son — J.D.’s love for his three stepdaughters; his concern for his grandmother’s freedom after the family had to place her in a dementia care facility; his excitement over the simple joy of getting a push lawn mower. They take comfort that he was an organ donor. One of his kidneys saved the life of a single mother of a 10-year-old child.

And then there’s the garden.

“It’s so peaceful down there,” Laurita said. “There are days I’ve gone down, stressed out and just walked around. There’s a breeze. It’s peaceful.”

The Pugmires say as long as there are families in need of soil and companionship, the garden’s gates are open.

Visit the Garden

The Idaho Veterans Garden is at 305 W. Belmont St. in Caldwell.

The garden is entirely supported by donations and volunteers. The garden will pay rent of $1 a month to the city of Caldwell for the next century.

Contact the Idaho Veterans Garden or make a donation online at idahoveteransgarden.com or contact project manager Dan Pugmire at dannypugmire@hotmail.com or 208-713-3167 or Director Ron Manker at ron@crossstreetteam.com or 208-867-2655.

If someone you know is need of help

For more about the Boise VA Medical Center’s mental health program, call 208-422-1000.

The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline is staffed 24/7 for veterans and non-veterans. Call 800-273-8255 for help.

Warning signs to watch for:

▪ Talking about wanting to die.

▪ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

▪ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

▪ Talking about being a burden to others.

▪ Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.

▪ Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.

▪ Sleeping too little or too much.

▪ Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

▪ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

▪ Extreme mood swings.

Other things you can do to help

▪ Do not leave the person alone.

▪ Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.

▪ Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.

▪ Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate. Don’t lecture on the value of life.

▪ Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.

▪ Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.

▪ Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.

▪ Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.

▪ Get help by calling the hotline or visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Source: Suicide Prevention Lifeline