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Patrick Springer, Published June 03 2010

Soldier’s suicide impetus for effort

Staff Sgt. Joe Biel’s death did not go unnoticed.

The Devils Lake, N.D., man committed suicide, a consequence, his friends said, of the post-traumatic stress disorder he experienced after two tours in Iraq.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., announced Wednesday that he has introduced federal legislation that will make June 27 National PTSD Day.

Conrad decided a national day of recognition would help send a message to other veterans that help for PTSD is available.

“If you’re having issues, please get help,” Conrad said.

The senator made his announcement at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo, flanked by some of Biel’s friends, who organized a memorial motorcycle ride to call attention to PTSD.

Noting that many people who encounter violence can suffer from the disorder, Conrad said he himself experienced episodes of rage and nightmares in the year or so after his wife was abducted at gunpoint by a crack addict and rapist in Washington.

Conrad said he didn’t connect the lingering effects from the episode until much later.

“This affects a lot of people,” Conrad said of PTSD.

The VA center has 11 rooms available to treat veterans with mental health problems, including PTSD, which afflicts an estimated 10 to 12 percent of combat veterans.

“That’s very high,” Conrad said.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Leaf, who served with Biel in the North Dakota National Guard’s 164th Engineer Combat Battalion, was on hand for Tuesday’s announcement.

“It’ll help,” he said. “It means that basically more people will know that there are people out there trying to help.”

Biel’s April 2007 suicide serves as a reminder, Leaf said, that veterans dealing with PTSD shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.

“There’s no sense in being a tough guy when you’re dead,” he said, “or when your life is in ruins.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522