For this week’s Community Conversations our host ST Billingsley spoke with Summer Watson and Shelia Kirkbride from the Warrior Research Foundation.
Q: So tell me, what is the Warrior Research Foundation?
SK: And to tell you a little about us, what our mission is [is] to identify the mental and physical needs of our veterans and their families. And the way we do that is through research, through needs assessments, and just talking to the veterans themselves, rather than just assuming what they’re going to need. We actually use research to be able to identify what they need, and then develop programs that work with other organizations to meet those needs that are identified.
Q: How did you get started?
SW: Well, the way that we got started was through a campaign called Drive for Life. And Shelia and I met, and we decided that there was a need in relation to identifying why the rates of veteran suicide continues to rise. And so we decided as the team to go across the country. So we drove from [Washington] D.C. to California, and through the nation we stopped at VFWs, American Legions, and we talked to our veterans and we asked them ‘What’s going on?’ Because again, like Shelia said, we don’t want to assume that we know all the answers. We need to make sure we talk to our veterans and speak to them and ask them ‘How can we help you best?’
And through that conversation, as we went through the country, they said ‘We really need our mental health needs met.’ The rate of suicide continues to go up and these were not just young folks, these were Vietnam veterans as well, telling us ‘We don’t have enough resources. We really need to tap into other resources – various resources.’ Some people were talking about the Veterans Administration being really great and others were talking about ‘Hey we need other resources outside of the Veterans Administration’. You know there were a lot of things going on across the nation that we just needed to hear. And being able to bring back and then identify that there is in fact a rise in veteran suicide.
In between the years of 2000 and 2010, female veterans alone there’s been a 40% rise in female veteran suicide. And again, during those same years, we’ve had a 13% rise in just across the board military male veteran suicide – so as likened to like, say a civilian population.
Q: How do you propose to save veteran’s lives in our community?
SK: What we wanna do is really be able to educate, because so many people talk about ‘invisible wounds’ but they’re really not invisible. And my background – I have a Masters in rehabilitation counseling – and Summer has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so what we really want to do is to be able to educate on how to be able to recognize a lot of the things that are going on with a veteran – whether it be anxiety, combat stress, and to be able to – once those are identified – help with the resources to connect them.
And also what we’d like to do, what we heard as we were going across the country, so many times when they reach out to the different non-profits or let’s say the VA, they’re not able to reach who they need to – it takes 3 to 5 phone calls. So kind of help to be the liaisons so to speak, and helping connect them when sometimes they’re just too tired or exhausted or not in the right place to do it themselves.
SW: And maybe they don’t have the resources to be able to reach out to, let’s say, the suicide hotline or Veterans Affairs 3 to 5 times because what they’ll tell us is ‘After 2 to 3 times, we’re done. We’re done and we’re suffering in silence.’ And basically they’re wounds are not invisible – there are definite identifiers based on, you know, watching somebody who is having crisis, who is going through some kind of trauma with PTSD, combat stress, anxiety. So we want to teach and educate about how to identify those factors as general population and as other people helping veterans and supporting veterans issues.
Q: You had mentioned that earlier a police officer – an ex-police officer – who’s a veteran, that they’re teaching other police officers to see what kinds of signs there are to identify what could be going on.
SW: So we talked earlier about how we’re going to save – or try to save lives – or reduce suicide, or crisis in our community with our veterans. And so from a large perspective or just a general perspective, our programs are preventative, modeling, and then also crisis intervention. And as we’ve said before, we’re working with a police captain who has found that he has police officers who are veterans – military veterans – who respond to veterans in crisis out in the community. That helps save lives. Because again that helps to reduce the crisis that is confronted by the veteran in crisis and that is confronted by the police officer.
So together, because of common situations or common issues, because they’ve both been in the military they are basically able to make that human connection and say you know ‘I was in the military. How can we work together? How can we resolve these issues that you’re confronting now that’s creating this crisis for you? And that naturally and organically creates that bond to really reduce that crisis in the field for those officers and for that veteran.
SK: So unfortunately what they were finding, especially in those situations where they’re both trying to heal – so to speak – and sometimes in a crisis situation the veteran is so escalated, if they’re able to know that this police officer who’s coming to talk to him is a veteran they’re able to connect on a certain level and a lot of times that deescalates the situation.
SW: So we’re really trying to work with our community law enforcement officers and our first responders, to really you know, see how veterans – who are these first responders – can really interact and really alleviate or minimize the crisis, and really be able to help these veterans in the community that are going through that crisis – connect them with various resources, so that they’re not then isolated and alone. That they have somebody to reach out to. That may be different than what they think is just the norm – like I have this resource or I have this resource, where communities have holistic resources that these veterans can use and reach out to.
So when we go to the different communities – say like, you know, Prince William County or Stafford County – those counties are going to be able to identify specifically their resources, and have a list of them that they can access and say ‘You know what, we have a list of things that we can give you and provide you – we want to make sure that you’re okay. So how can we help you?’ Even if we have to guide them there.
Q: Tell me about this documentary you’re working on. You’ve had a showing and you’re doing private showings right now. Tell me a little bit about the documentary.
SW: It’s called ‘Echoes from Afghanistan’.
SK: We are actually lucky enough to be working with the great group of Marine veterans who were actually in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2009 and then unfortunately since they’ve came back to the States they’ve lost 28 to suicide. And what we were trying to do is talk about the relationship those five veterans actually established through Facebook, through social media, to stay in contact with each other so they could help, let’s say deal with some of the issues that might of arose and there are even issues sometimes when they come back home.
And trying to re-assimilate in the community, and how do you have someone to talk to who understands what you’ve been through. You know we’re both military spouses but we don’t understand a lot of times what the combat veterans have gone through, so having someone else who understands to talk to them, to create those relationships if they’re not already there with other veterans, to offer peer-to-peer support. It makes such a difference for them in their personal lives as well as stress management.
SW: And I’m going to piggyback a little on what Shelia had said. So these five particular veterans met while being in the military and they became friends. And through that friendship they were able to follow each other as they transitioned out, separated from the military, and went their separate ways. And these five vets – one of them is still in the Marine Corps – and so what happened is as they began to develop their careers or go to different states and try to establish their lives outside of the military, what helped them tremendously was keeping connected. Like she said, through different social media – Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook – all different types of social media. Because that’s what the younger generation now is doing. They’re using the forms of social media to really stay connected, and as they did, you know, they were able to reduce that level of angst, depression for one another.
If one of them fell out they knew it, because they talked to each other every day, every week. They have constant communication with each other. So what would do was fly out to another and say ‘How can I help you pal?’ And so this is what that documentary is all about, is educating about veteran peer support network programs. And this particular group of guys is our model to show how you develop it while being in the military and as you transition out – meaning that you’re separated, you retire from the military. Because many times we’ve been in the military for 4, 5, 10 years – you haven’t had an interview, you were in the military. So the things that we’ve experienced as civilians – having to apply for jobs, go to interviews – they haven’t done it in 5, 10, 15 years. It can be scary. It’s a new feeling. It’s an adjustment. And to have one another really helps support, you know, them feeling isolated, them feeling down. They had that camaraderie once. They can camaraderie through the veteran peer support networks.
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