Veteran suicide prevention is a huge part of the National Veterans Foundation’s work. The NVF’s Lifeline for Vets takes more than 10,00 of calls from Vets every year, but it’s the suicide crisis calls that are the most serious. One recenty call from a Vet in Colorado is a prime example.
A Cold Night in Colorado
November. It was cold in Colorado. An Army combat vet who’d served two tours in Iraq had been living in his car with his dog and his shotgun for a week. In pain from service-related back injuries, he was suffering from complex PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. He called from his car, saying he had his shotgun with him but he didn’t want his dog to die in a kill shelter if something happened to him.
The VA suicide hotline had referred his call to us. Mary Ann Mayer took the call. Yes, he’d been to the VA, he said. He’d gone for treatment and pain meds, but he was not getting good treatment. Sleeping in his car in the cold had exacerbated his back and knee injuries. There were days he could barely walk. The VA had given him an appointment for an MRI four months out.
While Mary Ann kept him on the phone, intern Jackie Hill called local veteran service organizations looking for an emergency shelter that would take him and his dog. She was a registered service dog, and she’d been his lifeline through the long months of transition, the long nights of pain.
Homeless shelters in the area don’t open until the night time temperature reaches 26 degrees—four degrees colder. Hill managed to get him a voucher for a night in a motel. It was a start.
Certain he qualified for VASH (Veterans Administration Supportive Housing, Mary Ann called the local VA homeless center. She learned the VA had not screened him for VASH because he was not med-compliant and had been labeled a troublemaker. What did that mean?
The vet had missed medical appointments. No one connected the fact that he had been diagnosed with TBI. His not being med-compliant turned out to be his refusal to accept opioids as the only solution for his pain. In a time when opioids are rocking the nation, he was wary of the possibility of addiction and wanted to try an alternative therapy.
Focus on Solutions
Mayer turned her focus to SSVF (Supportive Services for Veteran Families). He’d been assigned two case managers, both of whom had quit. The third one was out for two weeks of vacation over the holidays. The NVF ran a fundraiser that allowed the vet to stay at the motel until the first of the year, when SSVF found him and his dog a place in a shelter.
A word on this vet’s “back story.” He’d served with honor, transitioned out and used his GI Bill benefits to earn a college degree in IT. He’d worked for several years. Like many other vets, he’d pushed through obstacles thinking he was fine. A confluence of events led to his being homeless for the first time in his life. We see this pattern often. A vet copes and copes before there’s a downward spiral that they can’t navigate and have no reserves of energy and no resources.
When he called the Lifeline for Vets, he was suicidal. Homeless, in pain, alienated from the VA, he later come down with a severe flu. While on the street, his dog’s service vest was stolen from a laundromat’s washer. Jackie couldn’t find him a shelter that would take a service dog without a vest. During his few weeks on the street, he and the dog had been walking at night and were assaulted by three guys. Both he and the dog were injured. The dog began showing signs of stress. There didn’t seem to be an end in sight. We kept in close phone contact while we worked on solutions for him. Mayer remembers weeks of being “on call” for him. She worked her way up the chain and finally got an appointment for him to be screened for VASH, only to be told there were no more vouchers.
Turning it Around
But things started to change. In December a friend of an NVF board member provided a grocery store card and a pet store card; the local VFW provided food. Mayer and Hill contacted all the dog training venues in the area looking for a service dog vest. A training company not only donated a vest, but added the balance of training for full certification, valued at $10K. By the end of January, SSVF had found housing for him and within a week he had a full-time job in IT.
Mayer says, “Vets can get on their feet, but there are too many obstacles. Especially from the VA, unfortunately. This veteran fell through the cracks too many times.” She remembers someone at the VA saying to her that this vet was a time drain. He’d continued, saying she must be having a hard time with him. No, she told him. That’s my job. From his first call to getting housing had taken over two months. We don’t give up.
“Our intern, Jackie Hill, was very resourceful. People stepped up to help with donations. It was a group effort. We reached out to our board members, our families and friends. The local Vet Center got involved. “Shad did that. He had a string to pull,” she said. Through those nine weeks, Shad supported his team, urging them to keep going up the chain at the VA. And that’s what they did. As many times as it took.