A few years ago, U.S. Air Force retiree Brandon Curry said a fellow airman had died, and though it wasn’t classified as a suicide, Curry felt otherwise. The man, Curry said, had drank himself to death. And Curry said he and others said they’d missed the signs the man was in crisis, which is why Curry is so passionate about The American Legion’s Be the One mission to reduce veteran suicide.
Curry – a member of Hardin Post 113 in Elizabethtown, Ky., where he also serves as Sons of The American Legion Squadron 113 commander – was a co-coordinator of a Be the One event Dec. 5 at the post. A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staffer was on hand to present VA’s S.A.V.E. Training to a group of around 70 Legion Family members and others at the end.
“After going through some suicide-prevention classes through the military, and now, being a part of (Be the One), there were some signs there that some of us did not catch,” said Curry, who serves as Kentucky’s SAL National Executive Committeeman. “He was actually crying for help, but nobody caught onto it.
“I feel very grateful and honored to be a part of (Be the One). All three (national Legion Family leaders) have taken this mission on to be their project to see it succeed. That’s given me a great sense of pride.”
Curry said that Be the One “became an initiative that turned into a mission. And like any of us that served in the military, when a mission’s handed down, we take the full pledge of it, and we’ll run with it and make sure the mission is successful.”
“It’s important for us to get the awareness out there. Hardin County is very military strong. We’re in Fort Knox’s backyard. We just want to be able to (provide area veterans) tools to help them or to help somebody else if they might need assistance.”
Post 113 member Tom Folsom, who worked with Curry to organize the event, said the timing couldn’t be better for such an event, and that having an expert to provide the training is critical.
“It appears, according to the statistics that we have, that veteran suicides are on the rise again,” Folsom said. “If we can save one life by doing this, it’s absolutely worth it. To have the trained professional here to do this, to help us answer questions … I’m not a training professional, obviously, so I couldn’t help answer some of the questions that people might have. Their program mirrors (Be the One), in my opinion.”
The training was provided by National Guard veteran Kelly Marcum, who deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now 50-percent service connected for post-traumatic stress disorder. Marcum now is a mental health social worker who serves as Community Engagement and Partnerships Coordinator at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville.
Marcum said that teaming with organizations such as The American Legion is valuable as VA continues to work to reduce veteran suicides – especially among those not in the health-care system.
“Anecdotally and statistically, it’s of the upmost importance now for (VA) to involve the community in suicide prevention,” Marcum said. “The VA has been somewhat successful with being able to counter suicide with a lot of clinical interventions, evidence-based practices. But at the same time, there are a lot of veterans that are not utilizing VA health care, or maybe not even seeing a veteran service officer.
“So, being able to train community members, have relationships with people like The American Legion – who can now interact with those veterans in a way that we talked about today – is going to prevent suicide for those folks who are maybe coming to a Legion (post) where they feel comfortable … or any other community where they feel comfortable going in and asking for help.”
Marcum, who admitted to having suicidal thoughts in the past, said that while VA has several successful suicide-prevention programs, more than half of the nation’s veterans don’t use VA. The result: “Those veterans are dying by suicide at a continually rising rate,” he said, noting the number of suicides by veterans utilizing VA services is starting to drop. “So, what we need to do with you guys is get out in the community. That Be the One attitude is the same thing we’re trying to do. Everybody needs to be a suicide preventionist. Everybody needs to have a little bit of training and a little bit of comfortability to see someone … and they look a little vulnerable to you, and be able to go up and say, ‘Hey, are you OK?’”
That’s one of the main components of VA’s S.A.V.E. Training, which focuses on four key facets:
· S - Signs of suicidal thinking should be recognized.
· A - Ask the most important question of all, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
· V - Validate the veteran’s experience.
· E - Encourage treatment and expedite getting help.
Marcum admitted it can be difficult to identify someone contemplating suicide, even those who verbalize their thoughts. “The people who talk a lot about suicide kill themselves. The people that don’t say anything about suicide kill themselves,” he said. “I’ve never seen any kind of pattern where I can pin them down and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the person I should have really worried about.’”
That’s why asking is someone is OK is so critical, and that anyone can fill that role. “I hope that this is the biggest takeaway that you guys have today,” Marcum said. “This is basic life-saving skills for mental health. Just like if someone grabs their chest and falls down … you’re going to yell for someone to call 911. You’re going to check for breathing … all the things you would do for CPR. You know a little bit to get them to that next level of care.
“That’s all you’re here to do today. Just know that little bit about how to get them to the next level of care.”
In October during the Legion’s Fall Meetings in Indianapolis, the organization’ National Executive Committee passed Resolution No. 9, which strongly encourages American Legion posts to host VA S.A.V.E. training classes and to invite local community, government agencies, not-for-profits and businesses to participate in the training.
American Legion posts interested in hosting a VA S.A.V.E. training class can facilitate it through their local VA Medical Center’s suicide-prevention team. A post can locate contact information for their local suicide prevention team through the Veterans Crisis Line Resource using this link. Once on the website, enter a ZIP code and press search. Then select the box next to Suicide Prevention Coordinators and press search again. Once completed, you will be provided with the closest suicide prevention coordinator and their contact information.
Marcum said he was pleased with the event’s turnout. “It was huge. To see that many people in the parking lot when I first came in was very exciting,” he said. “And the fact most of them are veterans or veteran-affiliated … is really important, too, because they also know a ton of other veterans. There’s something about us as veterans, we gravitate to other veterans. We find them in the community we live in. So, I think it’s much more effective … with this group because they’re going to be able to have that effect on pretty much their entire environment they go back out to.”
That’s the hope for Folsom: That the training provided at Post 113 can save a life. “To me, that’s the reason we’re doing it,” he said. “And if that could possibly happen, that would be a miracle. A prayer answered. It would be fantastic.”