MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Lance Cpl. Jeremy C. Heykoop was a marine, a father and a husband who lived in Muskegon before he lost his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. He died by suicide on Thanksgiving Day 2015.
Veteran suicide is an acute crisis wrapped in a national crisis. Between 2005 and 2016, suicide rates in the general population climbed 21%. For veterans, already dying by suicide at twice the U.S. rate, it climbed 26%.
Natasha Heykoop never thought her brother-in-law would be part of those statistics, even though she knew he struggled with PTSD.
“I saw him the night before he died. He was making plans for Friday. It wasn’t a planned suicide. We didn’t know how bad it was because he did hide a lot of the symptoms,” she said.
Natasha Heykoop grew up with him and already considered him a brother even before she married into his family. She says most of the men he served with in Iraq are dead, either from the war or from suicide.
Jeremy Heykoop had served two tours in Iraq. It was after his service that she noticed one change.
“We all saw that anger and we all just kind of would say, hey what’s wrong? Let it go, it’s not worth being angry about, but we never looked deeper,” she said.
The Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan has a be nice. campaign meant to help people suffering with mental illness. NICE is an action plan, that stands for notice, invite, challenge and empower.
Although Natasha Heykoop noticed a change in her brother, he had already sought help through the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital. She and her family thought he was doing OK.
They didn’t realize how difficult it is for veterans to open up about what they are going through. That’s why she took her grief and turned it into action, starting a nonprofit organization called the Lighthouse for Veterans.
“We had held a car show fundraiser to benefit veterans. As I looked around, I realized there wasn’t an organization locally that specifically focused on veteran suicide,” she said. “There are a lot of other veterans out there who show the signs and they are planning it, and those are the ones we’re trying to save,” said Natasha Heykoop.
Lighthouse for Veterans has three focuses. The first is to raise awareness and money through events, like car shows, bowling tournaments and golf outings.
Natasha Heykoop also became certified in QPR training, which stands for question, persuade and refer. She offers classes in the training free of charge throughout West Michigan.
She also organizes veterans only retreats, intended for vets who need that camaraderie they experienced during their service.
“Veterans don’t like to talk about what they’ve been through with their wives or kids, or even their therapists. They don’t always open up to these people, but you get them in a room with other veterans who’ve been through what they’ve been through, and studies show they will open up and they will talk,” she said.
A final piece is something she personally understands, and that involves covering the cost of a funeral for a veteran who has died by suicide.
“If you’re grieving the loss of your son or your daughter or husband, whatever the case may be, if they were a veteran and they (died by suicide), and if you don’t have the means to pay for that funeral, we are going to step up and help out,” she said.
Natasha Heykoop is not involved in the be nice. campaign, but supports the cause and understands how important it is to notice a change in behavior and then invite that person to share what’s going on.
“If everyone knew QPR, how many people could we save,” she said.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains risk factors and warning signs for suicide at its website. 24-hour help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.