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US Army vet survived 3 bomb blasts but nearly took his own life at home

US Army veteran Eric Donoho was sitting alone at the kitchen table of his Indiana home when he placed a loaded handgun into his mouth.

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Barbara Starr, Zachary Cohen
Jamie Crawford, CNN
CNN — US Army veteran Eric Donoho was sitting alone at the kitchen table of his Indiana home when he placed a loaded handgun into his mouth.

A combat veteran who had survived three separate bomb blasts while serving in Iraq, Donoho found himself standing at the precipice in 2015 -- the culmination of a years-long battle with depression, compounded by a series of personal tragedies and his own struggle to reacclimate to civilian life after leaving the service.

"Over time I just lost the joy and happiness from life, I lost my faith in humanity, I basically lost the ability to have hope," he told CNN.

"I was just at that bottom. ... I figured it would just be best if I ended it," Donoho added. "I knew that I had to decide to get on dying or get on living, and at the time I had chose to get on dying. ... That led me to my kitchen table in December 2015 with my Glock in my mouth trying to pull the trigger."

But ultimately it was a realization about how that decision would impact those closest to him that prevented Donoho from taking his own life.

"It was thoughts of my family having to sit or live in that house where I committed suicide where I eventually stopped me from doing that," he said.

In the three years since that moment, Donoho has undergone a monumental personal transformation and emerged with a renewed perspective on how his story might contribute to the broader effort of combating a troubling trend of suicides among US veterans.

"There are a whole lot of veterans just like me that have found their way through that darkness to the light who are doing these amazing things," he said. "We have to encourage veterans to look at the next chapter of their life."

That means not just talking about awareness but also having a real conversation about mental health, Donoho added, highlighting his own struggle to adjust to civilian life.

"I was acting as if I was still in war, and it was a light switch so everything went from zero to a hundred in a matter of a second and while that's OK when you're at war that's not really how we live in the civilian world," he told CNN.

Donoho has lost 14 military friends to suicide and the challenges of addressing the issue on a national scale are more apparent than ever with an average 20 veterans taking their own lives each day.

"What we are seeing is that the trend of veteran and military suicide -- it's not really budging. It's not really improving. The average statistic you hear is 20 a day," according to Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who noted that the number is down only slightly over the last several years.

"Overall we are still seeing the numbers, and with the amount of effort and resources that we are putting towards the problem, we are not really making a dent that's relative to where we should be at this point. So unfortunately it seems that at best we are treading water, and frankly if you dig deeper we may be getting even worse," he said.

The recent wave of veteran suicides that have occurred on Veterans Affairs campuses in recent months has only further fueled frustrations among congressional lawmakers.

On Monday, a veteran took his life outside a Veterans Affairs hospital in Cleveland, the fourth veteran suicide at a VA facility this month.

Two suicides were reported at facilities in Georgia on consecutive days in early April. Days later, another veteran suicide occurred in a waiting room at a Texas VA hospital.

"A veteran suicide rate that is one and half times higher than the civilian rate: This is an unconscionable urgent crisis requiring immediate action. This crisis is more than statistics," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday ahead of a hearing to highlight a renewed congressional focus on the issue.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a measure aimed at creating a federal task force that will tackle how agencies can help prevent veteran suicides.

At the time, Trump called the epidemic of suicides "a tragedy of staggering proportions" during a signing event alongside administration officials and representatives from various veterans' groups.

"Hard to believe an average of 20 veterans and service members take their lives every single day. Who would believe that's possible?" he said.

"Supporting veterans is a very, very important thing to me. And it's been a very important thing for my campaign from Day 1 -- and from before my campaign. But from Day 1," Trump added.

That order came after the Government Accountability Office released a study in December showing the VA spent only $57,000 of $6.2 million set aside for suicide prevention media outreach in fiscal year 2018.

Part of the problem lies in the VA's approach to treating veterans by prescribing opiates, according to Donoho.

"The VA prescribes an obscene amount of opiates to veterans, and in that veterans are also drinkers and so when you combine those two and you add depression to the mix, you know you are creating a pretty bad scenario," he said.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie acknowledges that more still needs to be done.

"It is a question of changing the culture, and we have probably done a better job of that than any other health system. But you are absolutely right, I say we are treating the pain, not the brain with opioid," he said during a March 27 budget request hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs.

The alarming trend is also a concern among active-duty ranks.

There were 231 suicides in the first nine months of 2018, compared to 203 during the same time in 2017.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller says most of those never saw the front lines.

"Last year we had the highest number of Marines taking their own lives ... the great, great, great majority of those Marines have never deployed," he said on Monday. "You are never going to have enough mental health capability, but we probably have the greatest mental health capability we have ever had."

"Of all the stuff that has happened since I have been in this office, that is probably one of the ones that is the most frustrating to me, because you know -- and, again, I can profile it, I can give you reasons and explain it to you but that doesn't change the fact that it is still an issue," Neller added.

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