2 Washington veterans who attempted suicide open up about their struggles and how they triumphed

SEATTLE -- At the highest point of the Columbia Tower, veteran Joe Wankelman shares the lowest point of his life to a room full of people.

During his presentation, he appears as a confident and outgoing man talking about his decade-long service to our country as an Apache pilot.

“I was part of an elite team,” Wankelman said.

He served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

For Wankelman and many other veterans, the terror of war takes on a different form when they come back home.

“I started to unravel,” Wankelman said.

Wankelman says he felt out of place in society and unable to connect with his family.

“I would just cry at night not knowing who I am, not realizing that I was more than just an Apache,” Wankelman said.

When he was stripped of his identity as an Apache pilot, the Army veteran says he felt so numb, so lost, that he started cutting himself.

Wankelman says his troubles at home also led to a divorce, and in 2016 he tried to end his life.

“I just know I woke up to a lot of wounds on my wrist,” Wankelman said.

He's grateful he survived, but he could have been a statistic.

According to a 2019 report of the latest data available, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that on average 17 veterans die by suicide every single day across the country.

Wankelman says he's lost four veteran friends to suicide.

“Those are like good friends, people who were in my unit,” Wankelman said.

Army veteran Gary Cashman doesn't know Wankelman but he can relate.

“The next thing you know, you have a gun in your mouth, felt pretty much alone, isolated, not worth it,” Cashman said.

Cashman attempted suicide last year, and he says in the last decade he's lost nine military friends to suicide.

“We lock everything up. We put the armor up, you put on the face, but at the end of the day you don’t know how to take it off because it's part of your identity,” Cashman said.

There is that word identity again.

“Our nation’s war is fought by less than 1 percent of our population; it's no wonder people come home and say, 'People don`t understand me,' 'I don`t know who I am,' 'I don't know what to do,'” Mike Schindler with Operation Military Family Cares said.

Schindler says there are various reasons why veterans are turning to suicide, but he says a common theme he sees in troubled veterans is a loss of purpose coupled with an inability to express their inner demons.

“One hundred percent there are a lot of people suffering behind closed doors,” Schindler said.

Before their suicide attempts, both Cashman and Wankelman were drowning alone in their own thoughts.

“Every time I talk, I learn something new something that might have happened I didn't think about a certain way,” Cashman said.

Both men say big breakthroughs came with small steps; they say something as simple as eating healthier did amazing things for their mental state.

“Definitely a diet change helped,” Cashman said.

Wankelman also credited a healthier lifestyle as a big turning point. He also started getting to know himself.

“It’s creating and finding mentors and learning and being curious about yourself,” Wankelman said.

Realizing their identity is more than one thing.

“Your identity does not belong to something you have done or something you have accomplished,” Wankelman said.

So now, Wankelman and Cashman both are moving forward as proud veterans but they are also constantly evolving.

Their message to other veterans is to ignore the stigma and ask for help and be willing to follow through.

There are many organizations out there including new efforts popping up.

The Columbia Tower Club recently formed a committee to help veterans. The group is the one who invited Wankelman to speak at their club so the community could learn from his story.

“Within our community, there are different organizations out there interested in helping, interested in engaging, also interested in hearing your story,” Jason Lowry with Columbia Tower Club said.

Organizations like Operation Military Family Cares and Red Badge Project are also there to help.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has resources to help veterans in Puget Sound.

The VA's suicide prevention team annually assists around 2,500 veterans.

Veterans can also reach out to the National Veteran Crisis Line at (800) 273-TALK.