Retired Brig. Gen. Paul “Greg” Smith didn’t hesitate when asked to emcee a Be the One suicide prevention symposium coordinated by American Legion Post 373 in Baldwinville, Mass.
After all, Smith presided over a dozen funerals for his troops who died by suicide.
“That left a profound impact on me,” said Smith, who served for 38 years in the Army and Massachusetts Army National Guard, where he concluded his career as the Land Component Commander. “One of the things I committed to do was to do whatever I could to help in the fight against suicide by veterans and first responders.”
About 50 veterans, servicemembers and civilians attended the day-long Be the One Suicide Prevention Symposium on Nov. 5 at Narragansett Regional High School in Baldwinville. The American Legion “Be the One” program aims to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health wellness and, in turn, reduce the rate of veteran suicide.
“The American Legion, in communities across the United States, provides an anchor for veterans,” said Smith, a member of American Legion Post 36 in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. “It is the focal point for veterans to be with other people who share their concerns and experiences. And that is very important, particularly as the veteran population in the United States is contracted. The number one issue we face as veterans is the loss of our brothers and sisters through suicide. The American Legion has done an outstanding job in taking the forefront of leadership and spearheading initiatives to reduce — and hopefully eliminate — the threat of suicide among veterans.”
The symposium was the brain child of Jim Brehio, a member of Post 373.
“It’s been a long journey,” Brehio said. “We started working on this in April. We’re here to build awareness and to educate veterans and their families so we know what the signs are. We have a full gamut of people here who are willing to help and spread the word.”
The event featured speakers and local agencies that shared resources, programs and more information with veterans, servicemembers, first responders and their families. Among the organizations that participated were Home Base - Red Sox Foundation; Veterans Administration of Central-Western Mass. Suicide Prevention Team; Massachusetts National Guard; the Veterans Center of Springfield and others.
“The most important thing we can do today is to give them (attendees) the information of what to look for suicide, what people may be going through, what the triggers are,” Brehio said. “If we can do that and at some point, someone can save a life, it’s well worth what we’re doing today. It’s a lot like learning CPR. If you have the training you can save a life. That’s really what we are here for — to save a life.”
Jackie Blanchard, an Army veteran, recalled her personal story.
“What started for me as a legit prescription for 5 mg of Percocet turned into a needle in my arm,” said Blanchard, a program director at Alyssa’s Place, which specializes in peer addiction recovery support. “It also ended my brother’s life, Adam, who was also a veteran.”
Adam Blanchard died of a drug overdose in April 2015. “We were 19 months apart and he was my best friend. And I couldn’t imagine living my life without him. But I saw what that did to my family.”
She turned to Alyssa’s Place for recovery yoga. “I don’t like yoga. I don’t even know why I went in there. But I was greeted with open arms and love. No judgment from these people, they just loved me back to life.”
With the support, one day of sobriety turned into two days. In June, Blanchard celebrated seven years of being sober.
That’s the kind of success story possible through Be the One, noted Past National Commander Jake Comer, who was among American Legion Family members at the symposium.
“The Be the One program means that if you can take one veteran and save that one life, that’s what’s most important,” Comer said. “You can do that through the Buddy Check program. We need to thank men like Jimmie Johnson from INDYCAR. National Commander James Troiola and those who succeed him will continue to push this message. It’s a constant message and one that is really important.”
Comer praised Brehio for taking the initiative on the symposium.
“Jimmy did a great job,” he said. “He’s gone above and beyond. For posts throughout the commonwealth and throughout the country to do what he has done will ensure that The American Legion will ride very strong.”
Army veteran Lisa McPhee, a member of Post 50 in Clinton, is among the vast majority of veterans and servicemembers who know someone who died by suicide.
“It’s the single most important issue facing veterans today,” said McPhee, a department vice commander. “And The American Legion is at the forefront of that effort. The biggest message is that it is OK to ask for help. It’s OK to not be OK. There is no stigma in asking for help. As veterans, we are taught not to ask for help. But these symposiums bring about the openness of discussion and helping veterans, and we are saving lives.”
McPhee, who served during the Persian Gulf War era, was thinking about some of the military brothers and sisters she knew who died by suicide.
“When someone dies by suicide, as a person you feel like you have failed them,” she explained. “But by getting engaged in veterans suicide prevention you are saying, ‘This is how I am helping you. Even though you are not here. I’m helping you by helping this other veteran get to where they need to be.’”
McPhee offers advice on what to do when a veteran, servicemember or civilian senses that someone is at risk for suicide. “They should listen. Listening is one of the greatest tools that people underutilize.”
She also recommended referring them to the national suicide crisis line. Veterans can dial 988 and press 1 for assistance. “They have the experience to help you. We love you. You’ve served your country. And you should be helped.
“When a veteran is having dark thoughts, they need help and they need to reach out to speak to somebody,” she said. “We’re here to do that. That’s what the Be the One program is. Be that one individual to get the veteran the help they need.”
And that is precisely what Smith envisioned for attendees once they left the session.
“I want people to walk away with hope,” he summarized. “Hope that this is not an unsolvable problem. Hope that when we work together we can help folks who are thinking about taking that ultimate step. Hope that they can reach out to service providers, helpers, partners in the community. And hope that they gained some skills today that will help them to intervene in some way to become that ray of light that will allow somebody to live for another day.”
If your post is hosting, planning or participating in a similar event, there are a variety of resources such as customizable brochures, videos, a QR code and more. Read this primer and visit betheone.org to access the materials.