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.