Monday, June 1, 2015

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time
By Andrew Turner

This September, we plan to display the 660 White Crosses, to represent the number of veteran suicides that will take place during Suicide Awareness Month.  When we first did this event last year, it was incredibly impactful on us personally, as well as on many of our friends and community members.  We expect the impact will only grow in the second year. 

The statistic of 22 veteran suicides every day may seem like an abstract number, hard to comprehend. But, looking over a field of 660 White Crosses is a powerful visual to see just how many lives are being lost, and the incredible ripple effect each life has on our community as fellow veterans, family members, and concerned citizens. 

Last year our goal with the 660 White Crosses was to raise awareness of veteran suicide, and encourage people to understand the impact of even a single loss of life.  This year, our goal is to contribute something tangible to impact the mental health of veterans in a positive way, and we are asking more of ourselves and more of you as supporters of Veteran’s Refuge Network. 

When we started VRN, one of our goals was to partner and support other like-minded organizations that serve our veterans each day. This year as we display the 660 White Crosses, we are asking anyone and everyone to sponsor a cross for $22. With your help, we will get all 660 crosses sponsored and raise $14,520.00! The money we raise from the sponsored crosses will be donated to Stiggy’s Dogs, a fellow non-profit in Brighton, Michigan, who is making a difference and saving lives by partnering veterans with companion and service dogs.

Why is this important? A couple months ago, the VA announced it is restarting a 3-year study to determine if “veterans with post-traumatic stress can benefit from service dogs or emotional support dogs."  I’m of the opinion that they could save a lot of time and money by spending one day with Stiggy’s and a few of the veteran/service dog teams they’ve trained.  It wouldn’t take much to understand the positive impact the dogs have on the lives of the veterans they are teamed with.  The money we raise will help Stiggy’s continue to grow and help more veterans.
If it sounds like I’m a paid spokesman for Stiggy’s, that’s only half true.  They are one of best organizations we’ve come across since starting VRN, and I have also benefited personally from their program.  Jamie and I were blessed to have had our puppy soul-mate, Lola, for 11 ½ years before she passed in January.  Jen Petre, Stiggy’s founder, sent us a message not long after, with the thought that fostering a dog for them might be positive for us in the sense that it would help us in our grief for Lola, as well as help them be able to take in a great dog they would have otherwise had to pass on.  After talking about it, we decided we were comfortable with the idea of hearing puppy paws running around the house again, without feeling like we were replacing Lola, since we knew it was only temporary. About a week later, when Jen offered to let us to adopt “Sailor” and train him as a service dog for me and VRN, we couldn’t decide if we were the best foster parents because he fit right in and stayed, or the worst because we couldn’t give him up. 

Before agreeing to keep “Sailor”, I talked with Jen at length about my reservations if keeping him would prevent somebody else from being helped by such a good dog.  Over the past year I’ve tried to be as open as possible about my issues with mental health and the struggles I’ve had, and I’ve never tried to misrepresent myself.  I told Jen that I have never been diagnosed with PTSD, and I was hesitant to keep the dog at the expense of somebody might have needed him more than I did.  I have friends that have confided in me the struggle they go through with PTSD, and I pictured their faces when I told Jen I didn’t want to prevent somebody else from getting help. 

In the end, I agreed for two reasons.  First, Jen assured me that he didn’t have to be a service dog for me personally if I wasn’t comfortable with that.  He could be a service dog for VRN and fulfill his mission by helping us help the veterans that reach out to us.  And second, Jamie convinced me that it was time we accepted somebody else’s offer of help.  We had just recently been talking about the last year and how taxing it had been on us personally, and on more than one occasion I had talked to Jamie about feeling like I was in a rut.  

I’m certainly not making myself out to be a martyr or asking for any pat on the back, but the fact is, through starting VRN, we’ve exposed ourselves more than ever in the past year, and while Jamie, Laura and I have tried to dedicate our efforts to helping others, it’s often at the expense of looking out for ourselves.  So after some convincing, our service dog in-training had a new home and a new Army-themed name.  “Recon” was here to stay. 

Since we got Recon the second week of February, we have taken him to Stiggy’s once a week to work on his training.  He came to us very well trained as a former member of the Leader Dogs for the Blind program, and we’re constantly amazed at how smart he is.  After about 8 weeks, he passed his Canine Good Citizen test, earning his CGC patch and service dog vest complete with an, “In Training” tag on it. 

I know he pretty quickly had an impact on Jamie and me.  And, I can definitely recognize the difference he’s made for me personally.  He makes it hard for me to check out mentally, which is something I’m really good at, because I know he needs my attention; he needs to be fed, exercised, let out to use the bathroom, played with, and groomed.  Plus, he’s just got too much energy for me to lie around all day in a rut.   He also brings me joy.  I like to see him figuring things out in his training, and learning how to do the tasks we ask him to do.  I’ve never been overly anxious going out in crowds, but I definitely am not a fan.  I avoid certain places at certain times because I don’t want to deal with the crowds, and I have a finite amount of time that I can handle being in surrounded by people before I just have to leave.  I’m sure Jamie can give more than one example of us not making it to the register to pay because I hit my limit and had to put everything down and walk out of a store.  One minute things are fine and we’re laughing together looking at ugly Christmas sweaters, and the next minute I can’t get out of the store fast enough. 

Since we’ve been able to take Recon out in public, I don’t hit that wall quite as hard.  I’m still not comfortable going to IKEA, no matter the time of day, but when there is a crowd, I don’t feel as uneasy because I like seeing how he handles everything and he gives me something else to focus on.  And, we’re only in the beginning phases with him.  Soon he’ll be learning how to turn lights on, search the house, and other quality of life tasks that will help me in ways that counseling and medicine don’t. 

Eventually the VA’s study will run its course and they’ll figure out what many of us who have the privilege of working with Stiggy’s already know: that service dogs SAVE LIVES as well as increase the quality of life.  It will take millions of dollars and at least three more years for the government to figure this out.  In the meantime 22 veterans a day will continue to take their own life. 

We don’t have three years. We don't have millions of dollars. You know what else we don't have? The luxury of time to wait, while so many lives are on the line.  By supporting us and sponsoring a cross, you are helping us help Stiggy’s and the work they are doing to save veterans today, not three years from now.  

To sponsor a cross, you can donate through our PayPal account via the "donate" button on this blog, via the "donate" button on our Facebook page, or contact us directly if you'd like to mail a check. Thank you for your continued support of Veteran’s Refuge Network and your commitment to eliminating veteran suicide with us.  Together, we’re making a difference. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

It Makes a Difference to This One

It Makes a Difference to This One
By Laura Chirio

I’ve had many people ask me why I chose the profession I did. For a long time, I haven’t known exactly what to say in return.  Finally, I have come to the realization that my lack of witty response is not evidence of insecurity or incompetence.   "I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody." - Lily Tomlin.  As for me, my decision to become a Social Worker was much less a choice, but rather a calling.   

Although I am not a suicide survivor myself, the effects of suicide have greatly impacted my life.  So, here I go, I’ll just say what’s on my heart. My heart is heavy. Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the suicide of SGT Ben Lewis. Saturday is the second annual memorial for PFC Brian (Bear) Smith, after his suicide in 2013.  In June, I will join many others at the memorial for SGT Zack Potter, whom I have come to know, even after his passing. My uncle, MAJ Larry Chirio took his own life over ten years ago.  Suicide is devastating and seriously impacts entire families and communities. It’s a ripple effect so large that often even those even on the outside suffer damaging effects.  My heart is heavy because there are so many families who will never get their loved one back.

 This I can say for certain - statistics are misleading. It has been reported that 22 military veterans commit suicide every day. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs Suicide Data Report, 2012; 147,763 suicides were reported from 21 states. That figure left out 29 states including those with high veteran populations like California and Texas.  I’ll leave that calculation up to you.

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by something so big, you think there’s no way you can make a difference? Yeah, us too. Have you ever been told that you can’t make a difference? Yeah, us too. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and I oftentimes take on more than I can handle and need to scale myself back. One of my favorite stories is the “starfish story.” On days when I feel overwhelmed, I think of this story. I think, even if I’ve helped just one - it’s made a difference to that one. But it’s never just one. It’s a ripple. It’s many. It’s a family. It’s a community.

When we founded Veteran’s Refuge Network, we decided that even if we only help just ONE person, everything we’ve worked for was worthwhile. Mother Teresa said,  Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.It’s true. Don’t get caught up in the mess of things and lose sight of what’s right in front of you. 

Help those around you when they need it and always do your best. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions. Recognize warning signs. Recognize DANGER.
D – Depression
A – Alcohol and drugs
N – Negativity
G – Giving possessions away
E – Estrangement
R – Revenge

Be informed. Be a friend. Be a gatekeeper. Be the oneBecause, even if you can only help one, it makes a difference to that one.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Wife's Perspective

A Wife's Perspective
By Jamie Turner

On Friday March 14th 2014, as we were minutes away from Veteran’s Refuge Network’s first TV interview EVER, I had a small panic-filled identity crisis. During the question and answer prep, the reporter was walking Andrew, Laura, and I through the order in which we’d be talking to her, and the key points each would discuss. When she got to me, she asked me what perspective do I bring to the table, and I panicked. I stood there looking at her, my mind blank. My neurotic brain began firing a million thoughts a second; I wasn’t a combat veteran like Andrew, I didn’t have the training or education like Laura, what DID I bring to the table?
I managed to ramble out an answer, about how I was a digital marketing major in U of M’s College of Business, so I would talk about the social media aspect and our business plan for the future. BORING, right? I stood in the background of the studio while Andrew led us off, talking with such strength and emotion about his deployment experience and our plans for Veteran’s Refuge Network. Laura was next, and despite being nervous and afraid that she would giggle through the whole interview – her words, not mine – she was incredible! She fired off her answers with such poise and confidence, my jaw dropped multiple times during her nine minutes. Then, it was my turn.

While I stood there observing the two of them speak, my mind and my heart were going back and forth as to what contributions I could make, not only for this interview, but for Veteran’s Refuge as a whole. I began to realize that as a military spouse, I do have a unique perspective, one that perhaps even Andrew and Laura couldn’t actually identify with. My voice is important, because of the three of us; I’m the only one who has walked this particular path. So, before the camera rolled, I asked our interviewer if instead of simply discussing our social media campaign and business plan, if I could talk about the spouses, families, and support systems that stay behind as their veterans serve. I spoke from the heart and before I knew it, our interview was over.

Someone told us a few months ago that if you have a servant’s heart, then serve. Why it took me a month to realize that those words applied to me as well as Andrew and Laura, I don’t know. As active service members of the Michigan Army National Guard, each of them puts on the uniform and serves. I’m realizing that even though my service isn’t as visible, it’s no less important. Few have walked in my shoes, and experienced the up-and-down emotional roller coaster that comes with having a spouse in the military. It’s not easy being the one left behind; trying to keep it all together while they’re gone, then trying to readjust when they’re home. Just when you’re comfortable again, it’s off to more training. And round and round it goes.

I’ve also lived through not only my husband’s deployment to a war zone, but through the difficult readjustment years that followed, from navigating the complicated VA system, to relationship issues, and simply learning to share my living space again. Nowhere in the pre-deployment packet do they tell you just how hard it would be to readjust to be husband and wife again after the coming-home excitement wears off. But, as spouses, we do it. One day at a time, one separation at a time. For me, that meant getting to know my husband all over again, and falling in love with the same but drastically different man that came home from war.

For spouses, emotions range from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. From abject sadness when he’s gone, to immense pride when you see him in uniform. From to sweat-inducing, mind-numbing fear imagining what could go wrong while he’s away, to overwhelming relief when he’s finally home. Love, anger, hope, frustration, all these swirl around inside while we’re going through our days, often unnoticed by those around us. Family and friends can sympathize, but never truly understand how it feels.

As I stood there thinking of all of this, I realized that I serve too. For the past twelve years, it has been my honor to serve at my husband’s side while he serves our country. Does it make my service any less important? Not at all. Serving at his side has been an incredible honor, and holding it all together at home makes it so he can go out and do what he does best - be a soldier. So, I’ll walk this walk next to him, holding his hand when he needs me to, or simply standing quietly next to him when he doesn’t. I can give voice to the families who stay behind, because I’ve lived it. I live it every day.

War, PTSD, injuries, separations, suicides, and death don’t just affect the veterans; it affects the spouses, families, and those that love the veterans as well. Their service may be quieter and less obvious, but never forget they do just that – serve. So today, when you say a prayer for our veterans, say one for their families as well. They are often fighting battles no one knows about behind closed doors. Send a text, make a call, or check in on someone. Your simple act of caring could mean so much! Let’s lift them up today, so they can find the strength to continue serving alongside their veterans.

If you are a caregiver in need of support, there are a variety of options available to you. You can contact Veteran's Refuge Network, Give an Hour, or VA Caregiver Support. Just know you're not alone. We've been there. We are there. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

One Year Anniversary

One Year Anniversary
By Andrew Turner

January 17th, 2014: “After being affected by the suicides of veterans close to us, the three of us, Laura, Jamie and Andrew, joined together and decided to quit saying, "Somebody should do something about this," and start saying, "We've got to do something about this." At a booth in that Panera we laid the foundation for that something. We decided that night that too many lives were at stake and our silence made us complicit. Today we are part of the solution to a national tragedy. Please join us in fighting back and saving the lives of our fellow veterans.”

This is how Veteran’s Refuge Network was born one year ago.  12 months later, it’s difficult to put into words what this journey has meant to the three of us, how it has impacted us individually, and how it has changed the trajectory of our lives.

PFC Brian Smith
SGT Ben Lewis
SGT Zack Potter

These are the names of the veterans we knew who took their own lives, and these three will forever be directly related to the founding of VRN.   

In the last year we’ve been confronted with an issue we knew almost nothing about.  Until it affected us directly, “veteran suicide” wasn’t something we thought about.  But now, not a day goes by when the statistic of “22 a day” isn’t on our minds.  Not a day goes by when the realities of living with PTSD isn’t on our minds.  Not a day goes by when the responsibility we bear to step in and support those struggling isn’t on our minds. 

Last week, we got together with the family of our friend, Sergeant Zack Potter, to honor his memory at the 1-year anniversary of his passing.  Zack is a huge part of why VRN is here today.  His family is a huge part of why VRN is here today.  Surrounded by his family and friends, I had to take a breath and look at how far we’ve come in the last year.  About 20 people representing at least five different veteran support organizations came together in the greenhouse at the Eisenhower Center’s Manchester Campus – a place that was very special to Zack. A few in the group never met Zack, but they knew of him, and we were all impacted in some way by Zack’s life.  Throughout the year we have talked a lot about the ripple effect that veteran suicide has within our community.  Standing in the greenhouse, that ripple effect was crystal clear.  Strangers a year earlier, Zack’s life, and his death, had brought us all together.
In a year of tremendous change and growth for us, a few things stand out that I’d like to share:

First, a single comment that stood out to me. I doubt the person who made the comment will remember, but the imagery of it left a profound impact on me and how I see my mission at VRN.  When talking about having a friend struggle and seeing them fight their way through the dark, he said, “I want to be a flashlight in that dark for them.”  In my own experience, and talking with others, it’s common to describe the experience of being in the middle of the struggle as being in that dark place.  It’s a place you know you don’t belong, but can’t find your way out of.  I want to be a flashlight in that dark for them.

Second, the relationships we’ve formed. From the beginning, we knew we were not in a position to provide primary care and service for people battling PTSD when they came to us for help.  For us, it has always been important for them to know we are there for them though, and for us to build strong relationships with other organizations that can provide those services, so when someone reaches out to us, we can trust that the organization we send them to is going to take good care of them.  This is an area we have done well at and are proud of.  Developing personal relationships with people in organizations such as Give an Hour, Stiggy’s Dogs, Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors, and many others, allows us to know when we refer a veteran to one of these places, they are going to be treated with respect and receive quality care.  Growing these relationships with like-minded people and organizations has been one of the most rewarding parts of the last year, and we have met a lot of amazing people who have become our friends, and had a positive impact on us as individuals and on VRN. 
Third, our PTSD awareness project during the month of June. For PTSD Awareness Month, we had an idea to engage our community and bring awareness to the tragedy of 22 veteran suicides every day.  Jamie had the idea to plant 22 crosses every day of the month to represent those veterans lost to suicide.  Our idea half-formed, we went to Home Depot, bought $300 worth of lumber, paint, and screws and cleared out the garage to begin painting and building the crosses.  When we started all the work, we didn’t even have a place to set them up.  After securing a place the day before we planned to start the project, we were unexpectedly forced to move locations three days into the project.  But due to the help and generosity of so many of you, we found a new place and went about the task of placing 22 crosses in the ground every day. 

It was an overwhelming project that we could not have accomplished alone.  Not only did it require more time than we had to give, it was very taxing emotionally and having you there with us gave us strength.  With the help of many of you, we put in nearly 150 man-hours of work on the project by the time it was finished.  The project received interest from media, politicians, friends and family, strangers driving by, and people from all over the area.  On June 30th, we held a community gathering to culminate the project, and joined together to appreciate and honor the lost lives we were representing.  More than 125 people joined us that night in what became a very emotional event.  Together we placed those last 22 crosses into the ground and stood back in awe of the beauty and the horror of 660 White Crosses covering a field close to the size of a football field. 

Throughout the year we’ve had a number of other opportunities to talk to people, groups, and organizations about VRN, PTSD, veteran mental health, and veteran suicide.  We’ve grown our network and become a respected part of the veteran community in our area.  In mid-October we received our non-profit status approval from the IRS, designating us a 501(c)3 charitable organization, and making us too legit to quit.  We’ve also started monthly get-togethers for our supporters, to get to know one another, build a community, and be part of something great. 

But just one short year in, and the work is still only beginning.  We are excited about the direction our organization is heading.  We are excited about the friends and connections we are continuing to make as a result of VRN.  But, we are most excited about helping veterans in need.

In the next year we will continue in our commitment to raise awareness about veteran suicide and PTSD, to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues among veterans, and to help veterans access the resources available to get them the help they need.  We are also looking forward to focusing on our long-term vision of funding and building a Veteran’s Refuge Center to provide a variety of therapies for veterans battling PTSD and other mental health issues.

Shortly after Zack took his own life, I told his dad I wish I would have been able to be a refuge for him that night.  He could have stayed on my couch for the night just to get him away from the things that were dragging him down and help him clear his mind.  Of course, as his dad pointed out, Zack’s problems would still have been there the next morning.  His PTSD would still have been very real.  His struggles would not have disappeared.  And while I understood, I also couldn’t help but think about the fresh opportunity that comes with the each new day.  We never know what tomorrow holds, and just maybe the call he was waiting for would come, or that flashlight would click on to help see him through the darkness. 

In truth, Zack fought as long as possible.  He did everything he could to get help and when that help didn’t come, he found peace the only way he could.  This is why I believe the work we have in front of us is so important.  We have a responsibility to all of the others struggling like Zack.  We have a responsibility to reach them, to be a refuge for them, to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks. 
Laura, Jamie, and I can’t do it alone.  We couldn’t have made it this far alone.  Much of the good work we are able to do is a credit to all of you who believe in us, encourage us, and sacrifice alongside us because you share our belief that our veterans are worth saving.  It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to take each of us doing our part and being the one to make a difference. But, change will come. 

Thank you for continuing to stand with us, offering your support, and being a flashlight in the dark for those who have given so much.