Helping Homeless Veterans: Raising awareness about veteran suicide

Nebraska Buddy Check, because 22 is too many (NTV News)

In 2010, veterans accounted for 22 - percent of all deaths by suicide among adults nationwide. In 2014, that number dropped to 18 - percent according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs report.

Groups like Buddy Check, formed by veterans for veterans in Nebraska hope to lower that statistic even more, one connection at a time.

"The stigma that is associated with mental health is really something that we need to get over, not only in the veteran community, but in the community as a whole. We still see that as a we're having to admit that there is something wrong with us,” said Adam Armstrong with Buddy Check.

Buddy Check is one of many resources available to veterans and their families.

They get together once a month to keep veterans accounted for, share common stories of their service regardless of what branch they served in and work to remove the stigma that is associated with veterans and mental health issues.

An average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day nationwide in 2014, that's according to the study by Veteran Affairs in 2016.

"It's 5:05 and I've been up since 6am, since I've been awake today, 9 United States Armed Service veterans have committed suicide somewhere in this country, and before I go to sleep another four will get the job done, and by this time tomorrow the number will be 20 - I should be one of those statistics," said Ryan Kaufman, a U.S. Army Veteran diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

By looking at him you wouldn't think he was ever homeless or someone who tried to commit suicide.

"My homelessness, although it played a part, had very little to do with my mental health condition. It had a lot to do with trauma; it had a lot to do with me attempting to preserve whatever sanity I had left," says Kaufman. "When I came home I was 20 years old, I was a veteran of foreign wars and I was - I had $12,000 straight cash and I was afraid of the dark and I couldn't tell anybody."

Kaufman started using drugs and alcohol as a way to stay awake.

"Some guy in the corner was doing something out of a lightbulb and I asked him if it would keep me awake and he said, 'Ryan you don't want any part of this' and I said I have $400 straight cash in my pocket I want every single part of that,” says Kaufman looking back.

After years of addiction and staying on other people’s couches, he says he looked for a way out grabbing on to whatever came his way.

"My unit left the middle east and I stayed in my foxhole and I prayed to God for help and he sent me a priest, and the priest said ‘say a few Our Fathers and you’ll be fine,’ and he walked off and I was stuck in this foxhole. The psychiatrist walked by and thank God you are here doc, I need your help, I’m stuck in this foxhole, and she wrote a script and she threw it in there and she said ‘take a few of these and you’ll be fine,’ and I’m stuck in this foxhole,” said Kaufman. “Another veteran walks by and I say, 'hey man I'm stuck in this foxhole,’ and he jumps inside the foxhole and I say what are you doing, now we are both stuck,' he grabs me by the shoulders and he says, 'follow me, I know the way out, I've been here before."

Dena Hawkes with Central Nebraska Community Action Partnership (CNCAP) says it’s important to understand what a veteran is going through, “The right medication I think is key also, and plus we just don’t know to what extent that PTSD, you know some of those triggers, we just don’t know and sometimes our clients don’t always know how to describe it and convey what they are feeling.”

CNCAP says they work very closely with Veteran Affairs (VA) helping their clients get the help they need as well as their family members.

“Definitely go to the VA appointments, ask questions, you know if you feel like you need more information ask for it. Those counselors will give it to you; the social worker will give you whatever you need. Definitely make sure that your veteran is on their medication. Make sure you are asking what kind of medication they are on, research those products and what they are giving them,” says Kristen Yonker, case manager with CNCAP in North Platte. “If you feel like something is wrong call the VA and say, hey somethings not right, most of the time they will help you.”

Kaufman got help from those around him after he moved to Grand Island, and started to find value in his life once again.

"[He] stuck his hand out and said, 'hey I'm so and so, I got your back, if you need anything let me know.' I hadn't heard that in 7 years and huh, I had been looking at all the wrong places for it," says Kaufman.

Like Ryan, other veterans dealing with mental health issues are not alone.

Although he did not say if he took part in Buddy Check, they are a resource that raises awareness about veteran suicide.

"We tend to isolate when we aren't doing too well, we tend to stay at home where we sit in front of the T.V., we play video games, we isolate and so that is really one of the goals of Buddy Check, is having people that can get out within their community, connect with fellow veterans and do something," says Armstrong.

They currently serve 10 communities across Nebraska and say anyone can join.

Kaufman found the help he needed and slowly started to put his life back together.

"Look I have some medals and I have some awards and that is great, it's fantastic; that's not who I am, it's just something I've done and I'm not going to let what I was a part of between the ages of 18 and 22 be the apex of my life," says Kaufman.

He now has a family and travels across the country talking about his experience helping other veterans find value in their life and in others. He also works for United Way out of Hastings.

"If I would have accomplished what I set out to accomplish in May of 2008 by trying to take my own life, I would have robbed every single human being of the opportunity they were going to have to meet these two little girls."

Ryan says he now looks forward to Sunday afternoon drives with his daughters out in the country to talk about their problems.

Case workers with CNCAP say that mental health issues are one of the major problems they see veterans facing. Other problems are unemployment due to their criminal record, local employers unwilling to work with veterans or how to identify them, backpack pay on child support, and lack of affordable housing creating a domino effect of issues.

“We did outreach for those kinds of programs all through our local area and the day of the conference there was not like one employer from our area that attended, which that breaks my heart because as a spouse of a veteran, I’ve seen the things that you know my husband struggles with and its things that are basic at a work place; you know alarms or doors slamming or those kinds of things that can really put a veteran back into a shock kind of state,” says Yonker.

If you or someone you know is a veteran and is suffering, here are some links to find help:

At Ease Program with Lutheran Family Services

Central Nebraska Community Action Partnership

Nebraska Buddy Check

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255

22 Kill: Bridging the gap between veterans and civilians, has a list of a variety of other organizations that help veterans.

Related Stories:

Helping Homeless Veterans: Getting veterans back on their feet

Helping Homeless Veterans: What organizations are doing to help

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