While perched on a cold granite bench on a sunny March day, St. Cloud, Minnesota, Mayor Dave Kleis peered down to read his younger brother's name engraved in the granite.
Thomas Joseph Kleis, known as Tom to his family, died by suicide in July after showing no blatant signs of depression to his family.
"I say this often: People just need to be kind to each other — always — because you don't know what someone is going through," Kleis said. "I wish we could have known what to say or what to do to prevent him from doing what he did."
Tom was the youngest of nine children — four boys and five girls — who grew up in Litchfield. All four brothers and one sister served in the military.
Kleis, 57, enlisted into the Air Force after graduating from high school. Tom followed suit and enlisted in the Marines after graduating in 1984. He was a heavy equipment mechanic, serving in Japan, South Korea, California and South Carolina until his discharge in 1988.
Kleis said he thinks isolation, chronic pain and underlying mental health challenges contributed to Tom's death, which has prompted Kleis to start talking more openly about mental health and reaching out to veterans, whose suicide rate is 1.5 times higher than that of the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
A 2020 national veteran suicide report states veterans accounted for 14% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults in 2018, although they only represent about 8% of the adult population.
The November report lags behind two years and doesn't include statistics from during the COVID-19 pandemic, except to state the VA is monitoring trends and has not seen increases in suicide-related behavior among veterans in VA care.
A Star Tribune analysis of deaths in Minnesota last year showed suicides remained flat during 2020. The increase in deaths statewide stemmed from COVID-19, rising drug abuse and worsening racial health disparities, with the increase of "deaths of despair" being mainly due to drug overdoses.
After his discharge, Tom Kleis wandered a bit, his brother said. He worked at Fingerhut, a distribution center in St. Cloud, until it closed about two decades ago. That steered Tom to attend and graduate from St. Cloud State University — the second in the family to do so, following in the footsteps of big brother Dave.