Tim Chandler, an Afghanistan veteran and the president of Silent Watch, stands at the Ashland County Veterans Memorial on Sept. 22, 2019. Chandler started Silent Watch to bring awareness to the issue of veteran suicide. Credit: Silent Watch Facebook

Battlefield Breakthrough

Battlefield Breakthrough is a four-part series looking at mental health and one group's efforts to help local veterans struggling with PTSD. It began on Monday, Oct. 30 and runs through Thursday, Nov. 2.

ASHLAND — Tim Chandler comes from a military family. 

“I found out my dad was in World War II and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge,” Chandler said in an Aug. 24 interview with Ashland Source. “I lost an uncle at the Battle of the Bulge, I had an uncle in the Pacific.”

So, when it came time for Chandler to choose his life’s path, he followed in their footsteps. 

The Ashland High School class of 1976 graduate was deployed to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. He said the military builds up soldiers who are programmed to kill. 

“But when they’re done, there’s no way to reprogram them back,” Chandler said. 

When he came back from Afghanistan, he became aware of the issue of veteran mental health and suicide.

Raising awareness

According to a 2020 Ohio Veteran Suicide Report, the rate of veteran suicide in the state increased 49% between 2010-2019.

Veterans are more than twice as likely as the average person to commit suicide. In 2019, 304 Ohio veterans took their lives — the first time that number exceeded 300 in one year in the state. 

Ohio’s adult suicide rate versus veteran suicide rate per 100,000 between 2010-2019. These rates came from a 2020 Ohio Veteran Suicide Report. Veterans are more than twice as likely as the average person to die by suicide.

Mental health serves as part of the puzzle. Among all people who died by suicide in the state between 2010-2019, 64% had diagnosed mental health issues, according to the report.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also documented the heightened risk of suicide in trauma survivors, though the exact reason for that risk hasn’t been pinpointed. 

Justin Baker, the clinical director of the Suicide and Trauma Reduction Initiative at The Ohio State University, said PTSD is one of the most diagnosed mental health disorders among active duty military members and veterans.

Suicide is also pressing issue in the military. 

“You certainly will have people that exist in isolation in each of the groups, but they also go together,” Baker said. “It’s not that they go together because PTSD is solely the thing causing suicide.

“I think we wish it could be so singular because then we could probably solve it a lot easier. But suicide and PTSD are both multifaceted, complex problems.”   

There are resources to help veterans and military members with their mental health, and those who struggle with thoughts of suicide thanks to these challenges. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs boasts treatments for a number of mental health issues on its website.

Still, Chandler said, asking for help runs contrary to what veterans are trained to do. He said a veteran’s mindset is “totally different than anything any psychologist or psychiatrist could ever confront unless they were a veteran themselves.”

Silent Watch

After returning from Afghanistan in 2009 and learning more about veteran’s mental health and suicide issues, Chandler started Silent Watch with some friends in Mansfield. 

The nonprofit organization aims to bring awareness to those issues.

He didn’t want to lose his career in the military, so he kept his mouth shut.

Tim Chandler, president of Silent Watch

It started hosting “silent watches” in Mansfield to bring awareness to veteran suicide. Those watches consist of people standing silently next to a casket, often with the American flag draped over it. 

Photos are displayed of veterans who have taken their lives — 22 of them, meant to signify the number of veterans who die by suicide each day in the United States.

A scene from a Silent Watch event in Mansfield on Sept. 16, 2023. Silent Watch hosted at least five Silent Watches this year in Findlay, Bucyrus, Mansfield, Ashland and Wooster.

A 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs put that number at 16.8 per day in 2020.

Silent Watch, a nonprofit organization, was active from 2009-2011, before dropping off in activity for a while. Chandler was dealing with his own life.

Then, a few years later, two of Chandler’s friends from combat died by suicide. 

“I knew they were asking for help,” Chandler said. “I knew the military shut them down in seeking help. The one was even told, ‘If you continue to seek help, we’re gonna have to discharge you. You will be out.’

“He didn’t want to lose his career in the military, so he kept his mouth shut.”

The Department of Defense lists history of psychotic disorders, bipolar disorders, depressive disorders, suicidal tendencies, personality disorders, trauma or stressor-related disorders and anxiety disorders as disqualifying conditions for enlisting to serve.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the military has recently changed its policies to encourage prioritization of mental health for service members.

Rules that went into effect in 2014 ensure seeking treatment and talking to a doctor doesn’t jeopardize your career or security clearance. 

Moving forward

Still, Chandler said there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health among members of the military.

Adam Boyce, the director of Ashland County’s Veterans Service Office, agreed.

He said even with the 2014 rule changes, it’s still a challenge for military members to seek mental health help. 

Ashland County’s Veterans Service Office, where Adam Boyce is the director, is located in the Ashland County office building on Cottage Street.

Boyce said his office deals with a lot of benefits delivery before discharge, or BDD, claims. Service members can start filing for those claims between 90-180 days before leaving the service.

He said a lot of service members won’t start seeking treatment until they’re within that time frame thanks to concerns it could impact their security clearance or ability to carry a weapon. 

“There may have been rule changes, but unofficially, I still think it’s something that’s not wholly supported by the military,” Boyce said. “I’ve been out since ‘07, so I can’t say that based on personal experience. That’s just what we see.” 

In 2018, after his friends’ deaths, Chandler started promoting Silent Watch with more vigor. Silent Watch started a website, a Facebook page and started hosting events.

Today, its goal is to expand across all 88 counties in Ohio, and across the country.

If you are in crisis, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. For the veterans crisis line, press 1 after being connected. To be connected with resources in your community, you can dial 211.

Ashland Source's Report for America corps member. She covers education and workforce development, among other things, for Ashland Source. Thomas comes to Ashland Source from Montana, where she graduated...