ST. CLOUD, Minn. — While perched on a cold granite bench on a sunny March day, St. Cloud, Minn., 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.

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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.

Kleis said Tom worked at his driver's training business a short while and then started driving for St. Cloud Metro Bus. That career took him west for a little over a decade to operate buses in Portland, Oregon, before moving back to Minnesota in 2019.

He had some pain in his knees and was treated at St. Cloud VA, Kleis said. The chronic pain made it challenging to drive so he left Metro Bus shortly after moving to Sauk Rapids.

The last time the Kleis family gathered together was Easter 2020. Even then, Tom seemed his normal self — kind with a "tremendous sense of humor and a quick wit," Kleis said.

"You think back on things that maybe seemed a little odd. He was spending a lot of time, even at Easter time, planning a will. But he was at the age where people do that," Kleis said of Tom, 54 at the time. "That just seemed like a normal thing."

Tom was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, his last request.

'Even more important now to reach out'

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis at Wilson Park in St. Cloud, Minn., last month where a memorial bench is dedicated to his brother, a veteran, who killed himself during the pandemic. Kleis thinks isolation was a contributing factor. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis at Wilson Park in St. Cloud, Minn., last month where a memorial bench is dedicated to his brother, a veteran, who killed himself during the pandemic. Kleis thinks isolation was a contributing factor. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

For Kleis, the most important piece to suicide prevention is talking about it.

"If it's depression or mental illness, it's no different than if you had cancer or a physical [injury]," Kleis said, adding that he grew up in a generation where people didn't talk about mental health.

His personal experiences help him relate to people in his role as mayor.

"It gives me an understanding of what challenges people go through," Kleis said. "I think the most important aspect of public service is empathy."

Kleis' older brother Mathias "John" Kleis Jr., who died at age 52 in 2005, is also memorialized on the granite bench at Wilson Park.

Across the plaza is a bench dedicated to Jerry Relph, the former Marine and state senator who died from COVID-19 in December.

Kleis dedicated the memorial on Veterans Day as a place for family and friends to gather and remember their lost loved ones, which Kleis said is especially important as people emerge from the pandemic.

"The mental health challenges as a result of the restrictions have been trying and that will linger," Kleis said. "I think it's even more important now to reach out."

Experts say suicide often results from multiple factors and it is preventable. To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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