Navigating a solution to the veteran suicide epidemic

Robert Dorn wants to refocus the conversation about veteran suicide. Instead of fixating on the devastating number of 20 per day, the Vietnam War Army veteran has a different number in mind.

“We want to Be The One to start the conversation. Be The One to listen to a vet who has an issue. Be The One to help point a family with an issue to what they need,” Dorn said, referring to The American Legion’s new Be The One program that aims at educating and empowering veterans, their families and civilians to take action to save the life of one veteran.

As senior vice commander of American Legion Post 171 in Crystal Lake, Ill., Dorn took the initiative to reach out to local equine therapy organizations that work with veterans, first responders and others dealing with PTSD and similar issues.

“We went there seeing how we could be a benefit to them in reaching our veterans,” he explained. “After we saw what they did, it was quite obvious it was something we wanted to be involved in.”

Dorn, however, had a bigger vision.

The post created Vets 4 Veterans and Blue Families, a daylong program that debuted in June 2021 and was expanded for the June 11 event this year. “The whole idea is to bring together resources that veterans and first responders were not aware of. The problem is veterans don’t know what they are or what they do. We figured, ‘Why can’t we be the navigator for that veteran?’”

Dorn went to work, reaching out to organizations that could not say yes quickly enough. “I’ve been in sales all my life, and this is the easiest sale I’ve made. They told me they wanted to help but did not know how.”

Post 171 orchestrated the event, which included a Medal of Honor recipient’s presentation, equine therapy demonstrations and roughly 40 vendors that provide services to veterans and others who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.

Spreading awareness

The American Legion has long been a strong presence in the rehabilitation and support of our nation’s veterans. A few years ago, the Legion implemented Buddy Checks as a way to support veterans who may need assistance but don’t know where to go or are too proud to ask.

The Be The One campaign was created to spread awareness inside and outside the veteran community.  

“The contact with the veteran to get them involved in the program is really important,” Dorn said. “It isn’t necessarily other veterans who are going to help you right away. It’s your family members who know what is going on. Aunts, uncles … That ripple of suicide would affect them all. If they can understand what Be The One means, they can help point the veteran to a therapist or someone else who can help. Everybody benefits. That’s a huge win for the community. A huge win for the family. A huge win for the veteran.”

In the eyes of Post 171 Commander Charlie Morgan, the mission is to bring awareness throughout their community, west of Chicago. It’s not enough to say, “Thank you for your service,” said Morgan, a Coast Guard veteran who served in the Vietnam era.

“I want people to know these individuals are suffering, whether they are female or male veterans. And their families are suffering. I want to bring awareness and show that there is help out there.”

And that help can come in the form of one person. One phone call. One offer of help.

“As an American Legion post, we are here, alive and well and we want to help you and let you know we are here to help,” Morgan said. “It takes one person to go and say, ‘Hey, you got a problem, get some help, we need you around.’ We have to take it upon ourselves to take care of the problem. You have to be that one person. You have to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to help you.’”

‘A roller coaster ride’

PTSD and veteran suicide does not discriminate. Veterans from all war eras are susceptible. Even those who receive the nation’s highest honor for valor.

Among the speakers during Post 171’s event was Medal of Honor recipient Allen Lynch. A Vietnam War veteran, Lynch shared the challenges he faced in dealing with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

He described an otherwise normal day when he rode the bus home from his job as a benefits counselor at a VA hospital. “No thought of Vietnam when it came to post-traumatic stress.”

Upon arriving home, a thunderstorm suddenly erupted and a bolt of lightning shattered the calm. Lynch experienced flashbacks. He hit the floor. “My wife said I had the strangest look in my eye,” he recalled. “That started it. It was a roller coaster ride. … Anger. Depression. Survivor’s guilt. Feeling sorry for myself.”

Bouts of drinking, physical altercations and thoughts of suicide at times took over Lynch’s life. At other points, he mentored Boy Scouts, coached baseball and took the family on camping trips.

As time passed, the demons grew stronger.

In the early 1990s, Lynch wanted to get off the roller coaster. He turned down medication from VA because “I did not want to be hooked to pills the rest of my life.”

Counseling helped Lynch emerge from the darkness.

“PTSD makes us dwell inwards. It’s about how I feel, what I want, what’s going on with me,” said Lynch, adding he used his diagnosis as a way to explain away his behavior. “It takes all the responsibility away from us and puts it on this little friend we call post-traumatic stress.”

Lynch reversed his course when he started using empathy and understanding how his actions affected his loved ones. Another defining moment occurred when he visited the Punchbowl at Pearl Harbor. It dawned on him what he had — a loving wife and family, great job, freedom — was unattainable for those whose names are etched on the wall.

“The duty we have as veterans and first responders is to live the life that was taken from all our brothers and sisters who never made it home. They would love to have what we have.”

Train the trainers

It’s not just veterans who may need the support during dark times. Those currently serving on active duty, those in the reserves and others are at risk, too.

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Jennifer Miller, who also presented at the Post 171 event, has been on the front lines of reducing the stigma and preventing suicide.

Miller is nearing retirement from her role as suicide prevention liaison for the 84th Training Division at Fort McCoy, Wis. She trains other soldiers to identify peers who may be having ideation of suicide and works with senior leaders to create a climate where asking for help is acceptable.

“We focus on intervention skills. We’ve enveloped various programs into a three-day intensive training course that teaches those skills in a very nontraditional way. It’s very interactive.”

The topics include mindfulness, spirituality and more. She estimates 200 soldiers a year go through the train-the-trainer program.

“They go back to their units and we give them a training support package. There, they can talk about suicide, what are some of the warning signs. What are resiliency skills you can use? Hopefully, it will trickle out.”

So far the early indicators are positive. Troops are visiting with chaplains or attending support groups more frequently.

“It’s much more prevalent now,” said Miller, comparing how often interventions occur now than when she started seven years ago. “I’m retiring after 30 years in the Army. Even 15 years ago, no one would have spoken up. It was such a taboo subject.”

Measuring success

Looking ahead, Dorn sees the post branching out to focus on initiatives geared toward women veterans. A special walk will occur in a few months and other projects are in the works. It’s part of the overall outreach and efforts to connect with veterans, all in the name of providing resources, camaraderie and support to end the stigma.

Even though well more than 100 people attended the recent event, Dorn isn’t interested in measuring success by attendance figures. Instead, it’s a goal directly linked to the effort to Be The One.

“It’s hard to not get caught up in the numbers,” Dorn said. “How many vets showed up? Sometimes it’s not what you anticipate. I learned a long time ago, it’s the one. Be The One is really the key to it. If you help that one, then you help his or her whole family. That’s how we measure our success.”