Tennessee Legionnaires walk to inspire others to ‘Be the One’

For over five years, Department of Tennessee First District Commander Jim McLaughlin has been a part of a group called Greater Smokey Mountain Vet2Vet, which meets at his home Post 104 in Sevierville and allows veterans to learn more about dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma while interacting with fellow veterans.

McLaughlin calls it “peer listening,” rather than peer counseling. “We try to come up with coping mechanisms,” he said. “I give them my card, which has my cell phone number, and it is nothing unusual for my phone to go off at 11:30 at night. And I just listen, and you help them through it as best as you can. That’s how you be the one.”

Trying to head off veteran suicide at the local level is a passion for McLaughlin. So, when he learned The American Legion had launched its national “Be the One” suicide-prevention initiative, he was “ecstatic. I went nuts. Our American Legion recognizes that all of the millions of dollars that the (Department of Veterans Affairs) is throwing at the (daily veteran suicides) just isn’t working. What’s going to work is us, individually, being there for our brothers and sisters.”

McLaughlin was among around 50 American Legion Family members and others in Bristol, Tenn., area taking part in Hackler-Wood American Legion Post 145’s “Be the One” walk March 25. The group walked 2.2 miles round trip from the post to the Veterans Memorial at Cumberland Square Park, carrying the U.S. and multiple American Legion flags, wearing “Be the One” clothing and spreading the word about the initiative.

“This is a perfect example (of ‘Be the One’),” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to scream to the high hills in Bristol, Tenn. Just come see us. We’re here. We’re available to help if needed.”

The walk was the idea of Sons of The American Legion Squadron Commander Rick Minnick. “The American Legion has made it a priority for ‘Be the One’ this year,” he said. “I just thought that it would be something worthwhile to do for our community and for our veterans – to help them and give them the resources.”

McLaughlin said he found out about the walk through Post 145 Adjutant Roy Davis, who sent him the flyer for the event. “I told (Davis), ‘I need to talk to that young adjutant,’” he said. “(Minnick) said, ‘Commander, I’m not sure how big this is going to be, but it’s something I think our post should do.’ I told him, ‘Watch. You’re going to get more than your post.’”

The result was representatives from eight American Legion posts, as well as two American Legion Auxiliary units and two SAL squadrons. Seeing that kind of participation brought a smile to the face of East Tennessee Vice Commander Todd McKinley, a member of Hammond Post 3 in Kingsport.

“It’s more important than one person or one post or one district,” McKinley said. “And you have (non-Legion Family members) here who never served and aren’t part of anything in The American Legion, which is good. It means they’re concerned, the community’s concerned and the understand what’s going on and why we’re here.”

McKinley knows what it’s like to lose someone close to him through suicide. “My best friend, he committed suicide on Christmas Eve in 2017,” he said. “Had I maybe been a little more aware of the signs, I could have maybe reached out to him a little better and helped prevent that. This is the way to educate the public – and every one of us, too – and be aware of what the signs are.

“It's something that people kind of overlook and is preventable. Suicide is very preventable. It’s a matter of reaching out to someone sometimes and letting them know you care.”

Karen Nunan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and chairman of Tennessee’s East Division and First District Women Veterans Committee, also made the trip to take part in the walk. “I wanted my post to be represented and support what it’s all about, which is preventing veteran suicides,” said Nunan, vice commander of Post 52 in Morristown. “It’s a shame that these people would serve their nation and then feel they had to take their lives afterward.”

A two-hour drive each way didn’t deter Mike Testerman, commander of American Legion Post 2 in Knoxville, from making his way to Bristol for the event. “It’s that important,” he said. “I’ve lost guys that I served with to suicide, and we need to be aware of it and make as many people as we can aware of it. And that we’re losing a lot of people for no reason. There are those demons and things out there that we have to take care of.”

Tennessee National Executive Committeeman Robert Hensley, a member of Post 61 in Mountain City, was in attendance and said that “Be the One” is “a part of being a member of The American Legion. This is what we’re about: taking care of each other. This is our national commander’s thing and the best thing we can do: bring attention to suicide prevention, not only to our veterans, but to everyone.

“Most people I talk with are not aware of the numbers. And they don’t know why we’re doing this until we tell the story. That’s what this is all about.”

With the forecast originally calling for rain, Minnick said he wasn’t sure how many people would attend the walk. But the rain moved out, participants were able to walk under the sun with temperatures in the mid-60s.

“I was very pleased with the turnout. I was afraid we wouldn’t have a lot of people show up today, especially because of the weather,” Minnick said. “But it turned out to be a beautiful day, and I got a lot of positive feedback. I’m very humbled.”

Post 145 Commander Butch Rhymer praised Minnick for planning the walk and hoped it made an impact on Bristol residents. “Very few people are understanding of (the amount of daily veteran suicides), whether it’s for health reasons (or) PTSD reasons,” he said. “We feel it’s important that the community needs to know and be able to support caregivers, anyone, and be the one to make the phone call and prevent a veteran suicide. We don’t want families, caregivers, children especially, to go without their family members – especially because of suicide.”

At the Veterans Memorial, the participants took a break before heading back to the post. There, McLaughlin noted that the 50 or so walkers had been noticed. “Walking through the streets of Bristol, we definitely got (the public’s) attention,” he said. “And when they watch on the news this evening, they’re going to understand why.”

That’s what Minnick wanted. “Hopefully, if someone saw us walking today or wondered what we were doing, they could help one person,” he said. “If they help one person, then today was a success.”

If you’re a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive 24/7 confidential support. Dial 988 then Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or text 838255.