A recent report by the Department of Defense found that 156 service members committed suicide in the fourth quarter of 2020. The National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report found that 17.6 veterans died by suicide daily in 2018. At least 511 veterans died by suicide in Texas in the same year.
While the federal government has programs dedicated to preventing suicide, Texas has also devoted money and effort to fight the increasing problem.
“It is related to exposure to military and trauma and the effects of that. These are humans experiencing non-human events. They are exposed to traumas, come back, and have a lot of hurdles to overcome. The transition back to civilian life can be jarring.” Dr. Blake Harris, director of the Veteran Mental Health Department of the Texas Veterans Commission, replied when asked the reason for the increased suicide rate.
“But we don’t want to lose sight of the strengths unique to this population. They have value, skills, and resiliency,” Harris urged. “We are so lucky to be Texans with a lot of folks who want to help and a lot of resources. We want to help connect the two.”
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) funds the TexVet Initiative, which includes a website of verified and updated resources for veterans in Texas. Texas A&M Health Science Center hosts the website and makes sure it is promoted on Google and other search engines so veterans can find the resources they need.
It also funds the Mental Health Program for Veterans in coordination with the Texas Veterans Commission, Tim Kiesling, Director of HHSC Office of Veterans Services Coordination told The Texan. This outreach effort includes working with 37 local mental health authorities and providing training to local peer service coordinators.
So far, Texas has 50 peer service coordinators trained to help veterans around the state connect with resources like mental health and education services.
“The service coordinators serve a unique function in identifying needs of veterans and connecting them to resources,” Harris told The Texan.
The coordinators also receive suicide prevention training. “These peer-based services tend to be effective because of shared experiences and a sense of camaraderie,” he explained.
The Texas Veterans Commission recently created a Veterans Faith Champions program, with a goal to “enhance the awareness of faith-based partners about the needs for a sense of community and renewed purpose of veterans.”
Sean Bridwell and Kris Vandenburg were two of the Faith Champions who received training this spring.
Bridwell, a Marine Corps veteran and current commander of American Legion Post 76 in Travis County, was eager to participate in the initiative.
He will be the veterans representative to St. Teresa Catholic Church and Temple Beth Shalom, both located in Austin.
“The training was worthwhile. I’d encourage other religious people to get involved,” Bridwell told The Texan. “No matter your faith, we have to take care of each other.”
“I have depression myself,” Bridwell admitted. ”And I’m getting help. This is a way to give back.”
Vandenberg, who is an Army veteran and also lives in Austin, said his heart is to continue to serve the veteran community. He believes that veteran death by suicide is not talked about as it should be.
After several years of struggling with a substance abuse problem, Vandenberg got a wake-up call with a DUI and started leaning on resources he knew were out there but had never used.
“Coming back to my faith in the last four or five years has shown me that something was missing in my life. We are not meant to do this alone,” he expressed.
He wants to offer the same kind of meaning and hope to other veterans. “Hope is the biggest issue for many of these veterans.”
But it isn’t just the state joining in the effort. There are numerous non-profit and religious organizations that are available to help veterans and service members in crisis.
One of those is United We Serve, which hosts retreats and provides counseling and crisis care at the Shepherd’s Pasture Retreat Center in East Texas. Romey Kilgore, CEO of United We Serve and a mother of a military veteran, told The Texan that they’ve been serving veterans for 17 years.
The retreats feature many topics to help veterans “step back into civilian and family life,” including resolving conflict, healing marriages, and dealing with trauma.
She said the participants are treated individually and are encouraged to “explore their gifts, talents, interests, and passions.”
“Many of these soldiers have lost their purpose. When someone feels hopeless, then they are in danger of suicide,” Kilgore said. “We hope to help them find hope and their identity in Christ.”
United We Serve also ministers to the veterans’ families. “Veterans may be in the forefront, but the whole family is affected. Children often grow up away from their parents and endure long separations,” Kilgore said. “We see so many selfless spouses who don’t know where their path leads.”
Some participants got to Shepherd’s Pasture for just one retreat, but many have an ongoing relationship with the group and even come back to volunteer to help others.
Kilgore said she’s received a lot of positive feedback about the ministry, but she protects the privacy of those who attend.
Anyone who is interested in attending a retreat or receiving services from United We Serve can find more information at its website.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.