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By Jeremy Stalnecker –

Finding the answer to veteran suicide

Over the last several years it seems that anytime someone finds out what I do for work they are full of questions.  With veterans causes and issues so prominent in our national discussion, people are genuinely, at least for the most part, curious about what is being done to take care of the men and women who have served in the military.  Inevitably, when the questions about what our organization does are all asked, the conversation turns personal. “How did you get involved in this? Did you struggle as a veteran?” or similar is generally the question that ends the conversation.  Most of the time I say something about having been a Marine in Iraq and how it is an honor to just give back in some way.  Although that statement is true and serves as a nice way to end a pleasant conversation, the full truth is much more personal.  I got involved in the work that we do at Mighty Oaks when I realized that I had an unfulfilled obligation to continue my service to our country and its warriors.  When I left the Marine Corps in 2003 I was proud of my service but decided that I would never look back.  I was carrying things that were hard for me to deal with and the easiest way to move forward was hanging my uniform in the back of my closet and moving on with life. Ten years later I began to hear stories of those with whom I had served that were not able to move on.  Stories of suicides, broken relationships and shipwrecked lives.  It took me ten years, but I finally realized that my obligation to the men and women in uniform did not end when my active service did.  I realized that the only way that Americas warriors were going to regain their purpose after service to their county was when other warriors, those a few steps ahead, showed them the way.  The is the simple premise of the Mighty Oaks Foundation: broken people who were helped back to their feet turning around and helping the one behind them.  And since 2011 that is how it has worked.  Veterans helping veterans has allowed us to serve more than 2,000 veterans and service members during our week-long programs offering both hope and help to those with very little of either. What is our process? Spend a week with other veterans understanding who we were created to be and how to move beyond the grip of trauma. We have taught spiritual and life resiliency to thousands more and work every day to show the way forward through our own journey.  Having been both an observer and participant in this process has demonstrated one very important truth to me:

The problem of veteran suicide and other issues related to military service does have a solution, but it is not found at the VA.
The last few weeks I have had several conversations with active duty military leaders asking for help.  These are men and women who are dealing with the epidemic of broken lives within their commands but cannot figure out how to address these growing issues from within the system.  Out of frustration or a simple desire to deal with trauma and brokenness beyond the normal treatment channels, they are reaching out to less “conventional” sources who can offer some kind of hope. These conversations along with a recent statement by the VA Secretary Robert Willkie, who acknowledges that the VA needs to find a way to offer help for those who they may never see, highlights the failure of the one-size fits all approach to treatment. Wilkie said:
“Suicide prevention remains VA’s highest clinical priority. One life lost to suicide is one too many. Data are an integral part of our public health approach to suicide prevention. These data offer insights that will help us build networks of support, interventions and research-backed suicide prevention initiatives to reach all Veterans, even those who do not and may never come to us for care.”( https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5114)
This statement was made following the release of the VA’s most recent study on suicide in the military.  The full report can be seen here (https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5114) but a major takeaway was that even though overall veteran suicides have decreased slightly, suicides among those 18-34 continues to grow!  A good breakdown of the VA press release can be found in this article from September 26 by the Wall Street Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/more-young-veterans-committing-suicide-va-data-shows-1537970087) While everyone is thankful for increased spending to address veterans’ issues (the President just signed a $200 billion VA spending bill), the problem is not a lack of money or resources.  The problem is assuming that more money, medication, infrastructure or clinical programming will keep hopeless young men and women from ending their lives or will somehow put the pieces of broken homes and relationships back together.

We can all agree that there is a problem, but it is not a problem without a solution. The solution to the crisis that our warriors face is clear: Equip the warriors who were helped back up after getting knocked down to turn around and lift the ones behind them.  Reignite the culture of brotherhood and service necessary for survival in combat and instill the truth that the need for these does not end when the uniform is finally placed in the back of the closet.  Let those that have been down the road of combat, transition, hopelessness and renewal, serve as guides to others who will soon walk that road themselves.  There will always be a need for “professionals”, but the greater need is for understanding and care that can only be given by those who have “been there.”
There are many organizations like the Mighty Oaks Foundation that devote every day to serving Americas warriors. Why? Because we consider it a sacred obligation to “pay it forward” so that, just maybe, future generations will not have to carry the same burden of loss carried by ours.

We stand ready.