This past week, my best friend-fellow advocate-co-conspirator and, the Louise to my Thelma, made our way back to Washington, DC to be panel speakers along with another fellow advocate (Hi Gayle!) at a Summit sponsored by Code of Support Foundation. I really wrestled with going and my track record with DC was a bit challenging the last few times due to illness. When I was first asked, my body screamed "Nooooo-oooo" but, inside my mind I heard a whisper that said "You need to go. Say yes." So I did, with all the reservations and excuses I could muster within myself. We had a chance for our voice to raise up for so many Caregivers, Veterans and their families among non-profits, military, VA and private groups that were there despite "Metrogeddan" as it was called; how could I ever say no? These were individuals who wanted to do something...anything, especially in the light of suicide prevention and the families caring for our wounded veterans. I will admit, it was scary as hell and emotionally taxing.
I have to admit something. I got really pissed right off the gate, to the point where I was shaking that hit down to the core and had to leave the room a couple of times. There were a couple of speakers that I couldn't decide if they really and truly believed in what they were saying, or just couldn't see past the desk, papers and were blinded by the smoke being blown up their butts. I have never been one to show a problem without proposing solutions with it and most seasoned caregiver-advocates work the same way . I always try to look from their perspectives as well as the other side views. So after these speakers, I realized my speech about 22 a day had already been covered. I spent a week working on this planning to wow the ears that would listen but, ditched it at the last minute before I spoke. I felt that speaking from the heart was going to be the only way to go and just stick with what we do best....saying it like it is.
The issue I had is, here we had this Summit where we were all coming together for one purpose and that is about the war that comes home to families, finding viable solutions for our Caregivers and ways to help our families and children. It was absolutely refreshing to be around so many individuals who were thinking along the same lines as we were and that's, care for the Caregiver and the families...you care for the Veteran. I was so happy that many wanted to talk to us, get some feedback even if it wasn't what they wanted to hear but more importantly, take that information and do something with it. Never before have I been around that many people who were all on the same page. I almost had to pinch myself a couple of times to ensure I was still awake and not living some kind of fairy tale!
Maybe I am just naive sometimes but, I felt that we were all together with a shared obligation in not just caring for the families of our Combat Veterans but, an equal responsibility for failures in the past, a shared responsibility of the suicide rate among not just our Veterans but, also Caregivers and the complete disregard for our children, the true collateral damage of war.
One of the speakers which I won't name, spoke of what the VA was doing and the current status of suicide rates. It was the same thing we have all been hearing for years. The speaker had referred to the 22 a day but, stated that of those suicides only five of those were in VA care. If my neck hadn't been so stiff in stress, I might have produced a small version of the Exorcist with my head spinning all the way around. This person had to see my face that fell with not only disbelief but, just pure disappointment.
I will admit readers, this really ticked me off. I am hoping that, that statement wasn't meant the way this person stated it; even the professional speakers stick their foots in their mouths a time or two! Here I was though, sitting there looking directly at them and wanting to stand up and just scream damn bloody murder. From my seat, I kept running back and forth in my mind, whhhhhyyyyy would this VA representative say such a thing as we were all there collectively, for the same reason? I thought, maybe I am just too sensitive and raw right now on this particular subject, perhaps I wasn't being fair and I always try to see both sides of the fence so I really picked it apart carefully before making the final realization in my mind. My first thought was "So the VA is only responsible for just five?". "The other 17 a day doesn't count in your eyes because you weren't actively treating them?".
What about the reasons that are keeping them from getting help and what help is left anymore?
Respectively, the wait times are so long at the VA it's not surprising at all those "Non-VA treated" seventeen didn't get treatment. I've been there....helped Veterans go into a system that is backlogged and failing. I've seen the wait times, the lack of care and sometimes I think those poor souls are probably better off not getting the care that is already killing five as it is, or at least according to the statement I am referring to. I have seen the Vet Centers be 3 months to 18 months in just getting to be seen. We all were shocked but, not surprised that the VA Suicide Hot Line in 18 months, dropped 1.4 million calls. Who is to say these 17 or more, didn't fall in one or more of the above categories? How do we know that every single one of the 17 who take their life didn't try one or all of the above?
Also, one thing I noticed was that no where did anyone mention that the suicide rates are not collected in some states so we may be over 40 a day for all we know. In this news article, the five averaged a day that were considered "in the system" at the AZ VA didn't fair too well either and this is a good example of what's going on in our nation and why we are seeing a crisis. I am quite confused as to how this speaker felt this was something to state so boldly. There is always a clear view behind the reasons why a Veteran not treated under the VA dies by suicide, and I could probably give you a list of a dozen right off the top of my head. If I see it, others see it....why is it so freaking hard for the "suits" to see it? More importantly....because only five out of 22 a day were considered VA cases, does that mean the other 17 don't matter? In my book they do and I am sure that the families of these 17, that they matter greatly. I was glad to find out throughout the day, that I wasn't the only one who thought this as others came forward and shared the same sentiment as I.
I have to admit I was slightly annoyed, sort of disgruntled but, more so ashamed. This is the greatest barrier that we as military families face today. It's not just stigmas which plays a heavy hand in it but, the attitude of indifference. We were asked that in a group think tank if all barriers could be lifted, what would they be? I wished at the time I had the brain power to bring this up but, I had to really chew on it. My best friend had the brilliance to create a slide and meme for this trip and as always, she nailed it on the head. Indifference by those who are putting together these programs, funding them, running them are going to be our biggest challenges to date.
How in the hell do we even begin to take control of this crisis if the ones that are 50% behind it, don't man up and take responsibility for their part? I sat outside and vented to my friend. I was so frustrated and angry that I began to cry. We had traveled all this way to hear the same hogwash that we've been hearing for years. Here, we both had taken the time to not only prepare with voices from other caregivers, stressed about leaving our families, and travel so fast to get there only to find out that some still aren't doing their part? I had taken voices from Veterans, caregivers of all definition and era, and their children with me to share as this wasn't about me and, I started to feel like I had let them down. Sometimes I wonder if the stigma isn't easier to deal with than the indifference that we get from the people who promised to take care of us?
So I boldly stated that we, meaning the Military, the VA, the non-profits, the private sector, the general civilian world, and myself (meaning the families behind these Veterans) could all effectively work together and succeed. We have the proof right in front of us. We succeed daily at helping to kill 22 or more a day. So if we can do this with this high rate of success, then we can by God work together find ways to prevent it. I know I saw some jaws drop and it was an unconventional thing to state to so many people but, I wanted them to see what we are seeing. I wanted them to feel the call to action not just listen to a bunch of words and nod their heads in agreement. I had nothing to lose and a promise to my husband that he would not become a forgotten statistic. I announced I failed. I failed in part of my getting so sick, I failed in not seeing some things but, I also failed because the system failed me to begin with. If I can stand up and say "Hey, I screwed up" so can all these entities.
I think we all would agree that if the VA and the military simply stated "Yes, we screwed up too" we would have a new respect for them. I didn't get the time to say everything I wanted but, somehow they will get the message. From my point of view here....Suicide is a reaction to no action at all. It's right there in front of us so, why are we the only ones seeing it and not the ones who are running the show? It has to be more than just banners hung on a wall, printed pamphlets, someone has to answer the crisis number, and I think too? We are starting to become numb as a country as this war goes on.
One other thing that just absolutely floored me and was part of my abandoned ship speech, was how many programs were presented at this summit. I couldn't whisper to my friend one seat over but, I sat in confusion much of the morning (which comes easy for me these days). We have those looks between us of "I can't believe that just was said" or "get me out of here because I am getting ready to scream" and "Where were they?". I knew I had taken some time off and was a tad rusty, I knew that living off grid means communication is wacky but, this was different. Some of these programs had been around for a while and I had absolutely no idea! The thing is, many of us know what programs are out there. We know which ones are working, ones that are available for a one time only pass, ones that are failing, ones that are simply just a joke and, if we don't know them? We know people who do.
I had never heard of some of these programs that were supposedly working, showing some success and available. I wasn't the only one either. Some I knew of were there but, not easily accessible to the Veteran, Caregiver and their families. Some I had never heard of and wondered how we don't know about these and the rest, well I was just as shocked to see they existed as they were shocked in finding out they're not getting the word out.
I explained in my time speaking, that I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about of all that was discussed thus far. It was quite clear that there is a major disconnect between where the programs are starting and where they are ending up. It may look good way up high, and I am not saying they aren't successful with them....just not down here in the trenches. While word of mouth is a fantastic and cost free option...somehow it's just not making it down to those who need it. One has to wonder like I did, who the hell is using these services and how are they able to show a success rate when none of us know much about them or know at all they exist? I was stunned to see how much wasn't known. I was frustrated....frustrated because there were so many who slipped away from us that could have used this to get an upper hand on our chaotic lives. The only thing I could get in was that we just simply aren't getting the information. Period. BUT, many were receptive and willing to work on that.
Overall, this Summit was pretty freaking amazing. It wasn't about the food, freebies, the latest dictionary of Who's Who in the Non-profit world, nor was it about any one person in particular except the targeted group of discussion. It was a call to action for all of us to get off our collective butts and do something. The Director is a no frills, no thrills, put your money where your mouth is, kind of lady that I admire and respect deeply. She didn't waste any time and believe it or not? I felt like we accomplished more in those eight hours than we ever did in the last four years working with other non-profits. I enjoyed meeting Rick Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs from the Vietnam Veterans of America. He tickled me to death. With a baritone voice that commands a room without any microphone and one worthy of playing the voice of God, his mere presence just makes you feel comfortable but, you tend to stand just a little bit taller around him. It was nice to see that VVA was there in support of not letting this generation fail but, more importantly we proved again that we can all work together towards one goal. Plus? His hugs are amazing even though he is one tough bird to mess with!
I also met Jason Roncoroni from Stop Soldier Suicide , another program that I didn't know of and he was great. You can tell as a military man himself, that he sees where we need to go as well. He was assertive and just a "put it out there" kind of guy which I respect. His ideas and commitment to looking at beginning a "Transitional Boot Camp" was breathtaking and I will do what ever I can to help get the word out. It was something we all have voiced in one way or another since this War began and I plan to keep in touch and push for this. I am also hoping to see that follow ups are done after this transitional period because we all know, that most of the times our Soldiers come home and just want to get home. At that time period, many do not reveal any issues at all because they just simply want to get back to their lives. It's when life begins again that we start to see a massive spiral downward.
We proposed a lot of things, had group think tanks that I think with some drive, could produce some really astounding results. I want to thank all those who came despite travel challenges and well, just realizing we aren't getting anywhere thus far. I think there could not have been a better non-profit to hold this Summit and challenge us. Keep your eyes on this Foundation as I see it's going to produce some really big changes! I think I needed this challenge to get me back into the saddle again. I have felt for a while since he's been gone, that I haven't done enough for his memory although there have been many, many things where his memory lives on. That my voice didn't matter anymore. It was nice to get back into the swing of things and at the very least, show my children that I am not a quitter. If you are a non-profit and interested in joining in the challenge and help with the When the War Comes Home: Supporting the Behavioral Health Needs of Veteran Family Members, please contact email@example.com.
It is my sincere belief that if we ALL put our differences aside, and work together to solve this....we can make some big changes. Thanks to COSF for allowing me to participate in pushing the envelope just a little farther.