Garrison leaders and others urged veterans to reach out and seek help if they experience a mental health crisis during a Veterans Well-Being Town Hall and Resources Fair that showcased services available at Redstone Arsenal and local and state agencies Sept. 28.
“Suicide prevention is a serious concern in the military community at Redstone Arsenal,” Garrison Commander Col. Brian Cozine said. “Team Redstone is here today as part of an effort to help reduce the stigma around the topic of suicide.”
The event, at the Jaycee Community Building in Huntsville, was part of a statewide effort called Alabama’s Challenge for Preventing Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families, designed to help combat the continuing stigma that veterans face with mental illness.
Thirty-six vendors, including Calhoun Community College, the Alabama Career Center System and Family Services Center, set up at the resources fair to promote their programs. Veterans were also able to meet with representatives with the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, the lead agency within Alabama’s Challenge, to apply for VA benefits and file for VA compensation and pension claims.
“We are here to highlight services at Redstone for our military, retirees, veterans and families,” Cozine said. “We are here for you and to be a partner with you as we continue to talk about this touchy subject.”
Representatives on hand at the resources fair whose services are available at Redstone included Fox Army Health Center, Behavioral Health Department and Wellness Center; the Army Materiel Command’s Surgeon’s Office; Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation; Directorate of Human Resources; and Garrison Chaplain.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paulette Risher, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Still Serving Veterans and a co-chair of Alabama’s Challenge, described veterans as a “vulnerable population.” Nationally, about 17 veterans die by suicide each day, though the number is probably under-reported, according to Risher.
“The numbers have gotten better, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” she said.
A presentation by Risher showed that in 2019, 779 people died by suicide in Alabama and of that number, 106 were veterans. The highest number of veteran suicide deaths is among older vets, with 59% being 55 and older.
Sissy Louise Moore, ADVA’s veterans well-being coordinator, said 140 people attended the Huntsville resource fair and 80 people attended the town hall event.
“We were pleased with the turnout,” said Moore, who is the primary ADVA coordinator for Alabama’s Challenge. “Twenty-one vets were helped by our veterans service officers.”
Twannette Whitney, an Army veteran of the Gulf War, who lives in Huntsville, was among those waiting to talk with an officer to get assistance with a disability claim.
“The Army’s focus is people first,” Cozine said. “So, we want to stress that forums such as this highlight and stress the importance of connecting people to people.
“We must increase awareness of warning signs for at-risk individuals and enhance understanding of the characteristics of suicide ideations and coping mechanisms,” he said.
“Raising awareness of suicide prevention can help us better understand the causes,” Cozine said. “We want our community partners to know that we are taking care of our workforce, veterans and families just as you are. We want everyone that is part of Team Redstone to know that if there is a crisis” or if they know someone who is in crisis, “there are immediate resources available to support them.”
Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Dylan Lemasters said that no one is immune to risk factors “if you do not rely on your community and the teams that are your light, your hope when you feel like you are in your darkest hour, your darkest days or even your darkest years, in some cases.”
Lemasters referred to a statistic that the average Soldier waits on average 10 years before seeking help for a range of issues.
“As we are a melting pot and reflection of our communities in the nation, I would hypothesize that stat is similar in our population,” he said. “Don’t wait to get help. The team is ready and willing to be the light that pulls you out of the darkness.”
He noted that 988 is the new number to connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, effective July 16, 2022.
Lemasters, who has served in the Army for 22 years, said he’s always been a part of “a highly functioning, very close-knit elite team” and received specialized training to deal with high-stress situations and to be resilient while operating in a variety of environments.
“In spite of that, in July of 2015, I started having panic attacks,” he said. “My immediate response for those panic attacks was to face them alone” due to pride or fear of letting down his team.
“I was still trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why was this happening,” he said. “I went to some really dark places, and it went on for years.
“The thing was, even though I was always part of a team, I was going it alone when I should not have and, more importantly, I didn’t have to,” he said. “The resources you see today were still coming on line during my tenure.”
Lemasters called his wife, Gina, his “guiding light. … She is my hope and is how I finally started finding my way out of the darkness to seek help and connect with the resources that are here today.
“You don’t have to go it alone,” Lemasters said. “Life is a team sport. Don’t be afraid to let the team be your light, your hope. It will help you save a life. I know it saved mine.”