By Leslie Montee
Veteran’s Day 2022 is tomorrow. It snuck up on me this year, as it seems to do more so every year. Since Veteran’s Day is near the end of the year, reflecting on the previous year seems natural. Reflection, for me, involves not only recalling events from the year, but also the interpretation of those events. Part of the process seems to gosomething like this: What did I do that made a difference? What more could I do to make a difference? How do I go about spreading this knowledge to others and how do I go about carrying out my ideas? As I am sure the readers do not want a “Dear Abby” type dialogue between me and myself about the entire year of 2022, for this paper’s timely publication, I will share the realizations I came to that relate to the Veteran population, and how to serve them better.
2022 was a tough one. An election year, rising prices of everything, and just the general tension in the world can cause high stress. This is no different for the Veteran population. “22 a day”, is a common mantra heard about Veteran suicide. While one is too many, 22 is a shocking number and it always hits me hard when I read it. 22 a day? Those are my brothers and sisters; we share a commonality that can never be broken, and 22 of them every day reach the point that not living is a better option than living? We have to stop this somehow! And then, something happened. In 2021, the official estimate of Veteran suicide released by the Department of Veterans Affairs was 17 per day. While still unacceptable, a decrease is a good thing at least. A step in the right direction.
But then, something else happened. Another study occurred. Officials from America’s Warrior Partnership, in a joint study with University of Alabama and Duke University, reviewed census death data from 2014 to 2018 for eight states and found thousands of cases of suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations. If those numbers were replicated across the remaining 42 states, it would propel the number of suicides to 44 Veterans per day. The heart shatters again.
The largest category of overlooked deaths was drug overdoses. Many were considered accidental or unknown intent, though all indications pointed to intentional occurrences. Regardless of the intent, the point is, these deaths were preventable. Each of those Veterans were struggling. Similar to how they slipped through the cracks while they were alive, their deaths and the cause slipped through the cracks after they were gone. And while federal entities have plans in motion to better track Veteran suicide, that doesn’t fix the root issue: the suicides themselves.
Not all wounds are visible. Veterans of today’s wars are different than those of wars past. With the rise of explosive devices being used by enemies, the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) being seen in our Veterans is on the rise. You cannot see TBI with the naked eye. While it’s safe to say that Veterans are a tough population, it’s also safe to say that each one can come with their own “handle with care” sign. The rampant and tragic rise of military sexual misconduct can also not be ignored among our Veteran population. These occurrences, again not visiblewounds, also place additional stress on our troops and Veterans, adding to the mental health struggles a Veteran may face.
While programs, VA assistance, and medical resources abound for those suffering with mental or emotional struggles and I am grateful for them, I don’t think that those things are the entire solution. I think it all starts with you and me. We’ve got to start meeting Veterans where they’re at. Many of them might not feel comfortable seeking professional help; they might not even realize they need it. As friends and neighbors, sometimes a small gesture can go a long way for someone who needs support.
Recently, I learned of a local organization called Charlie 22. The organization is a 501(c)3 based out of Webb City, Missouri and their mission is clear: to provide outdoor activities to our nation’s Veterans and their families with the goal of showing them there is hope, love, and a personal meaning in God’s grace. All events provided by Charlie 22 are free of charge. I was blessed to attend a Charlie 22 Women’s Retreat at the end of summer. The women at this event were all Veterans or spouses of Veterans. It’s important to remember that spouses need support too because oftentimes they will endure the brunt of a Veteran’s struggles. The Charlie 22 retreat was a place where everyone was met with open arms and could share their commonalities, find support in those who could help, a shoulder to cry on, or even just a simple “Hey, I get it,” something the civilian world can never truly offer.
While at the retreat, it became apparent that when I left would not be the last I heard from them. Charlie 22 is a family, and once you attend one event, you are a part of that family, and that family will indeed check up on you, sometimes more than your actual family. Showing that they care is what Charlie 22 does best and that care doesn’t end when you leave the event. I encourage any Veteran or spouse who is reading this to attend a Charlie 22 event, if for nothing more than the camaraderie they offer. The camaraderie is often one of the things that Veterans miss about military life the most. Possibly the biggest indicator of the impact Charlie 22 has is that at each event, there is at least one person who began as a Charlie 22 guest and was so impacted that they said “Hey, I wanna help,” so they returned as a volunteer and continue to serve other Veterans in need, meeting them where they are, growing the family.
Organizations like Charlie 22 are where differences are made. It’s on us to lift those who’ve given when they need a hand up. Seek out a Veteran and offer them a small act of kindness. You never know who might need it.
To learn more about Charlie 22 or to get involved, visit their website at www.charlie22outdoors.com. To learn more about Veteran suicide prevention, visit https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/mental-health/suicide-prevention/.