On the kickoff of National Buddy Check Week, a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official provided some numbers that showed the first-ever such week could end up making an impact.
During an Oct. 16 webinar collaboration between VA and The American Legion that drew more than 110 viewers, VA Chief Veterans Experience Officer John Boerstler noted almost 5,000 people had signed up for his agency’s Take the Pledge to Talk to Ten veterans this week.
“Hopefully this call will get us over the 5,000-pledge mark,” Boerstler said. “That means that 50,000 veterans will be contacted this week.”
The webinar was moderated by American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division Chairman Tiffany Ellett and included VA&R Chairman Autrey James and Matthew Miller, VA Suicide Prevention executive director.
Boerstler thanked The American Legion for stewarding the idea of a National Buddy Check Week “for years. We’re incredibly proud to steward this on your behalf. To use VA’s communications channels … to communicate this fantastic campaign. Obviously, we know the benefits of such an idea of Buddy Check Week, especially … thinking about how might we be able to reach untethered, unenrolled veterans, caregivers and survivors, so that they may be able to participate and access the earned benefits and care that they have so richly earned.
“And also, it’s a great opportunity for us to highlight our partnership with you, The American Legion, as well as many of our other incredible partners – not only at the national level … but most importantly, where the rubber meets the road down in communities at the post level and the community level.”
James noted the Legion’s Buddy Check program started in 2019 and has reached more than 1 million veterans since its inception. “The Buddy Check was a way for us to reach out to those folks who needed help and maybe didn’t know where to turn to to ask,” he said. “By reaching out, calling a member that you hadn’t seen for awhile gave us the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we’re here. We care about you. We want to make sure you’re ok. Do you have any needs?’”
James urged anyone making Buddy Checks to have a list of resources on hand to assist a veteran who may be needing assistance. “You’re going to find that many of our buddies are looking for help,” he said. “It may be something related to under-employment or employment in general. It may be food insecurities. We’ve talked about the issue of benefits. Those are the type of things that come up quite often. What you have to be prepared for is to steer them in the direction that’s going to get them help.”
On the first day of the inaugural Buddy Check Week, James cautioned that the effort can’t be a “one and done thing. This isn’t something that’s a one-time deal. This is something where we expect to continue this particular relationship. I am so pleased that the VA has joined us in this Buddy Check program. I’m pleased that this is a Buddy Check. But more to the point for you Legionnaires that are on here, don’t forget about November near Veterans Day when we’re back at it doing Buddy Checks.”
James also urged Legionnaires making Buddy Check calls to share the load, breaking the effort up among several individuals. He also said that Buddy Checks aren’t just a mental wellness check.
“It’s about building relationships,” James said. “It’s about addressing the needs of your members. Mental health, yes, absolutely. But sometimes, the root cause of a problem is the fact they’re unemployed. If you can do anything to turn them toward seeking employment … or if they had food insecurity, if you can do anything to make them feel more secure about where that next meal is coming from, you can do a lot toward helping with the mental health aspect of our veterans.
“And don’t forget the veterans’ caregivers. They are equally as important. Make sure that they also are getting services that they’re entitled to and need. Caregivers are some of the most important people out there, and it is an extremely, extremely tough job.”
Miller said suicide prevention remains a top priority for VA. “Suicide is preventable, not inevitable,” he said. “We find this every day on the Veterans Crisis Line. We field over 2,000 calls a day … where veterans are calling in. They’re on the teeter-totter between life and ending life. We find a big part of the journey for veterans in those moments is talking with them about risk factors, protective factors, what we can do to minimize risk factors and maximize protective measures. And by the end of call, bringing that to the protective side … and moving forward one step of the time from there.”
Everyone has a role in suicide prevention, Miller said. “It’s easy to think that that is someone else’s role,” he said. “Buddy Check Week really pushes us past that.”