As Becky Duncan pulled into the parking lot at Carnie Smith Stadium earlier this fall, the memories came rushing back. As they always do.
“Happens every time,” Duncan said. “It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since my time as a student and cheerleader at Pittsburg State, being back on campus brings it all back. It’s such a unique feeling that I think only PSU alumni can understand.
“And it’s especially meaningful today.”
The day was Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
“I’m back to being a cheerleader at PSU,” she said as she stood near a large VetLinks.org banner. “But this time it’s not just for the Gorillas. Our veterans need help. Our veterans’ families and caregivers need help. And we can help them by being their voices and raising awareness. That’s why we’re back at PSU today. To spread the word about VetLinks and our mission to support the men and women who have given so much for us.”
‘Our civil duty’
VetLinks.org is a non-profit organization started by U.S. Army veteran Brian Kavanagh and his wife Jessica. Its mission is to educate and empower veterans and their families by linking them to services, support, and programs in order to enrich their quality of life. Its particular focus is on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and substance abuse disorder (SUD).
Brian, a 1997 graduate of St. Mary’s Colgan High School and 2001 graduate of Pittsburg State University, died in 2016 after a long battle with PTS, TBI, and SUD. After his death, Jessica made the VetLinks cause her life’s mission. She wanted to help others avoid the pain and struggle that Brian experienced.
“Brian needed help,” Jessica said, “and getting it wasn’t easy. We were both frustrated by the lack of care provided by Veterans Affairs and the overall lack of resources for veterans who, like Brian, were struggling with PTS. So, in typical Brian fashion, he decided to be part of the solution. And VetLinks was born.
“And even though Brian is gone, his legacy and spirit live on through VetLinks.org and everyone who is working hard to provide the care our veterans need and deserve,” she said. “Brian is the inspiration and energy behind all that we do.”
Jessica leads VetLinks.org as executive director, and she’s supported by a board of directors made up of several of Brian’s lifelong friends and fellow Pitt State Gorillas.
Joe Fleming, who earned his master’s degree in clinical psychology from PSU, grew up with Brian. He serves as VetLinks Veteran Assistance Director.
“Brian Kavanagh was my best friend from the age of 11 years old until his passing,” Fleming said. “The best times of our lives were spent in Pittsburg, and many at PSU. My association with VetLinks is motivated by trying to help other veterans who are suffering from the afflictions that took my dearest friend. Because of that close friendship with Brian, coupled with my academic interests in psychology, this cause has become very dear to me, my family, and my closest friends.
“Brian always felt it was our civil duty to help support our soldiers who suffer the psychological and physical consequences of what we require of them,” Fleming said. “We feel the same.”
‘Part of his legacy’
Pat McNally, who earned a marketing degree from PSU in 2002, serves as Operations Director for VetLinks. He said he joined the organization to help provide a platform of support for veterans who need care the most.
“I was blessed to know Brian for all 37 years of his life,” McNally said. “Brian was always helping others, and the VetLinks cause will be part of his legacy. Supporting our veterans is an all-day every day endeavor. Brian was dedicated to it, Jessica is dedicated to it, our entire team is dedicated to it. Veterans are the only reason we have the freedoms we have today, and it is our duty as Americans to pay attention to them and support them when they return home.”
Duncan, who earned a graphic design degree from PSU in 2003, serves as Branding and Marketing Director for VetLinks. In that role, she creates various graphics for the organization’s website and social media platforms. Many of those graphics include statistics and figures that are, to her, “alarming and shameful,” particularly those pertaining to suicide rates among not just veterans, but also their families and caregivers.
“Veteran suicide and substance abuse due to PTS is a very concerning issue,” she said. “However, rarely does the public hear about the effect of these veterans’ mental health on the mental health of everyone who cares for them. We are now acutely aware that over the last 10 years, the rise in suicide rates of caregivers, veteran spouses, and children of veterans has dramatically increased.
“Children in military families are bearing the burden and stresses of parents away on long deployments or back home dealing with physical and mental health problems,” she said. “A study in 2015 asked more than 1,000 high schools to participate in a survey about suicide and suicide attempts. Among military children, 24 percent said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year compared to 18 percent for everybody else.”
Duncan, whose husband Kirk also serves on the board, said her mission is to make VetLinks.org a nationally-recognizable non-profit by 2022.
“These veterans, families, and caregivers are falling through the cracks after sacrificing years apart, in fear of not knowing if their loved ones would return home in the same condition they left or if they would return at all,” Duncan said. “As a nation, we cannot fail them now that they are back stateside. VetLinks.org is the safety net for these veterans and families who are falling through the VA mental health care gap.”
‘The ultimate sacrifice’
Jessica Kavanagh admits that it isn’t easy. Living without her husband and the father of their two little girls is a struggle each and every day. But she finds strength in knowing that VetLinks.org will help others avoid the pain she experienced, the pain Brian experienced.
And she finds strength in the VetLinks team, who have all become her dear friends.
“I seriously couldn’t do this without them,” Jessica said. “The VetLinks board of directors is made up of seriously amazing people, many of whom knew Brian since childhood. I’ve heard so many great things about Pittsburg State University and how the people there are a ‘family.’ Through this experience with VetLinks, I see that it’s absolutely true.
“Brian was so proud to be from Pittsburg and be a PSU alumnus,” she said. “I know it means the world to him that his cause is being taken up by so many fellow Gorillas.”
Mark Schremmer, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s in communications from PSU, serves as Communication Director for VetLinks. He and Brian were friends since kindergarten.
“We want to honor our veterans and get help to those in need, including their caregivers,” he said. “Many of our veterans make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation. The least we can do is make sure they receive the care they need.”
‘Get this under control’
John Purcell earned three business degrees from Pittsburg State and is now the president of Elite Orthopedics. He serves as Director of Strategic Growth for VetLinks.org.
“Like many others on the VetLinks board,” Purcell said, “this is personal for me.”
Brian was his roommate at PSU.
“Twenty veterans commit suicide every day,” Purcell said. “That number doesn’t include those who overdose on drugs and medication. The services they have available to them from the government isn’t much. Those veterans and their families need our help. They need VetLinks.org’s help, they need PSU’s help, they need help from all of us. We must get this under control.”