TREMPEALEAU, Wis. - The number of military suicides hit a record high in 2012.
According to recently released Pentagon numbers, 349 soldiers took their own lives.
That's more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year.
Army National Guard veteran Nate Harter has been struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide since returning home from deployment in Iraq.
Two soldiers the Trempealeau resident's unit were killed while they were deployed together in Iraq. But with their names engraved in a silver bracelet he never takes off, they're always with him.
"Losing a friend, that hurts. And it's not really a friend; it's more of a brother," said Harter.
It's not his only emotional scar the deployment left behind.18178108
"You get put in situations where you have to shoot. You have to do a lot of stuff that you normally wouldn't do, and it screws with your mind," said Harter.
The weight of what he'd been through didn't hit him until he returned home in 2005.
"I drank nonstop. Every day, I drank," said Harter. "I just didn't care about life. I didn't care about anything. And it sounds so stupid because, I mean, you just went through all those life-threatening situations to come back to kill yourself? That's pretty stupid now that I look at it from my point of view now. But back then, I mean, you feel like you don't have any options."
Although the military suicide rate is still lower than the civilian rate, last year's number of military suicides was the highest since the Pentagon started keeping track in 2001.
Every branch of the military showed an increase from the previous year.
"Obviously, there's a serious problem there, and we're seeing it has been on the rise within the VA system as well," said Anita Grana, a clinical psychologist at the VA clinic in La Crosse.
Grana said while asking for help seems to some vets as a sign of weakness, it actually takes a lot of courage.
"Anything that stays hidden is not going to get fixed. And people tend to avoid dealing with what hurts. That's human nature. And yet, that's the worst thing you can do if you want to heal it, is to avoid it," said Grana.
Harter said he was saved by his family and his brotherhood of fellow soldiers, even though the suicidal thoughts never fully go away.
"It's always going to be there. Your depression's always going to be there. But on the same token, you're always going to see the other side -- your family, your kids," said Harter.
Any veteran who wants to reach out for help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or send a text message to 838255.
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