A roadmap to saving veterans’ lives
Vic Martin, commander of the 22nd District of California, shares The American Legion's Be the One message with a veteran during a three-day conference in San Diego. (Photo by Henry Howard)

A roadmap to saving veterans’ lives

“It’s OK to ask for help” was a message that resonated throughout the packed conference room as Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough opened the third annual VA SAMHSA conference June 11 in San Diego.

“You know what?” McDonough asked the VA staff, clinicians, active-duty Department of Defense (DoD) professionals and other partners working to reduce suicide among veterans and servicemembers. “Anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness, those are aspects of the human condition. It's not weakness to name those, it's not weakness to confront those, it's strength.”

It wasn’t simply McDonough’s message. It was one he was conveying on behalf of David and Brenda Fox, the parents of Army Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox, who died by suicide in 2020 at age 25.

“The last line in his note was tell people to get help,” McDonough said in an interview after his speech. “Importantly, he goes on to tell people it's OK to get help. Nobody understands duty in this country better than this country's awesome veterans. So what I'd say is it's OK to get help, as Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox said. Not only that, it's your duty to get help and we want to help you fulfill that duty.”

The messaging throughout the three-day event aligned with The American Legion’s mission, Be the One, to reduce the number of veterans and servicemembers lost to suicide. Speakers, panel discussions and breakout groups fostered solutions-based conversation among the approximately 225 in attendance who are on the front lines of this battle to save lives.

The American Legion had a prominent presence where information materials were distributed to attendees to raise awareness around Be the One.

Vic Martin, commander of the 22nd District in the Department of California, praised the connectivity of the event.

“The Be the One program is all about reaching out,” said Martin, a member of Post 275 in La Jolla, Calif. “Not only reaching out to veterans who we feel may need that support and need that help, but also reaching out to the community to ensure that we are able to build relationships with stakeholders to ensure they are knowledgeable about our programs and services.”

Martin also said attendees thanked him and expressed gratitude that The American Legion had a presence.

“It speaks to a collaborative that we, as Legionnaires, need to incorporate into our mission,” he said. “Working with other organizations to not only spread the word about Be the One and the programs we have, but understand how our programs may intertwine with their programs. So the Be the One message can be water carried not just by The American Legion, but by our partners as well. We’re seeing a lot of interest from organizations that are interested in being part of the Be the One mission, and we’re excited about that.”

McDonough is grateful for The American Legion to be aligned in this mission.

“When you think about being there for our veterans, in so many ways VA is emulating the Legion, right?” he said. “The Legion now, for more than a century, has been there in communities for veterans, for their families, for their survivors. At the end of the day, that's the baseline requirement for beating this. The Legion is showing us the way by making sure they're being there for each of their members, for their communities, for all veterans. We're thrilled at VA for the Legion to be our partner in that effort.”

Another critical partner in the mission to end veteran suicides is their families and loved ones.

“We want to be a support to those families,” he said. “We encourage veteran family members, if in crisis, to use the Veteran Crisis Line. Dial 988, press one, we'll get you and your veteran in touch with providers today, if need be.”

McDonough looked ahead beyond the conference, pointing to the group effort required to save at-risk veterans.

“Each of our partners works together with us to make us better,” he explained. “Importantly, each of those partners also holds us to account to make sure that we're doing our part. At the end of the day, we work for the veterans and we want to hold ourselves to account to the veterans. A critical way we do that is by holding ourselves to account to our partners, including our great partners like the Legion.”