24 February 2023 by Elizabeth Martinez Gonzalez
Public Relations of The American Legion Department of Puerto Rico
Last Saturday the Department of Puerto Rico walked beside 150+ veterans and servicemembers who came out to advocate for mental health through an initiative by a nonprofit called Irreverent Warriors. This initiative brought the veteran community together for the third year in a row, where we saw a beautiful display of flags, hats and T-shirts of all the branches of the armed service, VSOs and nonprofits that give a helping hand to those in and out of the Island of Puerto Rico. The energy was contagious, we began together and as in the military service we left no one behind. It was probably the first time I have seen so many veterans come together for a cause having to do with mental health since I retired in 2014.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report documents shows a decrease in veteran suicide deaths. It also shows that suicide was the 13th-leading cause of death among veterans overall, and it was the second-leading cause of death among veterans under 45. It shows that in 2020 there were 6,146 veteran suicides which is 16.8 per day, 343 fewer than in 2019.
We began with something we all hold dear to our hearts, which was the display of the colors and the national anthems by the local Coast Guard. It was continued by a message from retired Mayor Gen. Antonio J Vicens and Veteran Advocate Agustin Montañez Allman, who walked next to Department Commander Carmen Rosario for a total of 6.5 miles through the beautiful cobblestone streets in the Old San Juan area. It was an honor to be able to experience a flyover while we walked through Paseo la Princesa from our local Coast Guard helicopter in support of all the vets who came out to emphasize that one suicide a day in our community is too many. The walk gives you an opportunity to learn of the person walking beside you, exchange phone numbers or emails and know what programs helped them in their journey and why they joined the walk.
When newly elected National Commander Vincent J. Troiola was appointed last September, he informed that suicide prevention would be his number-one priority. The American Legion launched BE THE ONE as a new campaign to ensure that civilians, military members and veterans alike "begin thinking, talking and acting to save just one life." For more information of this initiative visit https://youtu.be/kc_9AWxbd6k and www.legion.org/betheone/about.
Something that caught my attention was that they cadenced their mission statement throughout the hike: "We are Irreverent Warriors, we bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide." But another moment that took my breath away was seeing all the veterans completing 22 push-ups for those brothers and sisters in arms who commit suicide daily. After the walk we went to Scryer Run Barrelhouse & Rooftop, who sponsored an afterparty with great food and music for all the participants. The American Legion and Veteranos con Puerto Rico Hosted their radio show Heroes de Puerto Rico: Veteranos Somos Uno transmitted in NotiUno630 with interviews of all that happened in this lovely event.
On the other hand. we found that in a Military Times report dated Sept. 17, 2022, by Leo Shane III that the veteran suicide rate may be double federal estimates, a study suggested. It showed that officers from America's Warrior Partnership, in a joint study with the University of Alabama and Duke University, reviewed census death data from 2014 to 2018 for eight states and found thousands of cases of suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations. If those figures were to be repeated across the other states, it would push the veteran suicide rate from about 17 individuals a day (the official estimate released by VA last year) to 44.
The American Legion's initiative BE THE ONE will ensure we start destigmatizing asking for mental health support, provide peer-to-peer support and resources, and educate anyone on how they can BE THE ONE. This is the No. 1 priority for the organization because it has been reported that 17-22 veterans or servicemembers commit suicide a day since the war started after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, making it about 6,000 brothers and sisters in arms annually. We must work together to lower this number collectively.
How can we emulate the activity that Irreverent Warriors is so devoted to nationwide? BE THE ONE to save a veteran, end the stigma. Let's lower the high number of suicides in our community, 22 a day is too many. (https://youtu.be/kc_9AWxbd6k and www.legion.org/betheone/about)
Here are some valuable suggestions:
Talk with others about how you are feeling
Ask for help when you know you need it
Know there are peers and professionals ready to help
Remember your family and friends care
Visit your behavioral health professional and drink your medications as prescribed
Avoid alcohol while drinking medications for mental health
Start some outdoor recreation at a pace you can handle (kayaking, bike, walks in beach or rainforest)
Join any number of nonprofit organizations that help give you new tools to deal with your mental health in holistic and safe ways
My objective with this blog today is to bring light to the mental health crisis our veterans have been suffering since we started participating in missions around the globe. We know it is hard talking about how we are feeling when we are down, angry, super vigilant within other, but we want to assure you there is a light at the other side of what you are feeling. We also know that while in the military we were trained to not show our real feelings, that we can compartmentalize hardships for a later moment. But I am here to give you a small hint that has helped me throughout the years: "we should not have to wait to explode like a pressure cooker, we should be able to hear the noise and know we are ready to work on ourselves so we can have a better quality of life."
If in crisis, CALL THE SUICIDE AND CRISIS LIFELINE by dialing 988
If in crisis, CALL 911
Visit your nearest VA Hospital & Vet Centers
Mental Health Clinic visits are Highly Recommended
All eras can join an American Legion post (https://legion.org)
If you are a Post-9/11 veteran feel free to join the Wounded Warrior Project (www.woundedwarriorproject.org)
All eras can join The Mission Continues (www.missioncontinues.org)
Join Irreverent Warriors to know dates of other hikes around the US/PR (www.IrreverantWarriors.com)
Remember to listen to Heroes de Puerto Rico: Veteranos somos Uno transmitted every Saturday from 2-3 pm in NOTIUNO630 (www.notiuno.com). Our show was created by Veteranos con Puerto Rico and the Department of Puerto Rico of The American Legion to give the most complete information of everything happening in the veteran community on the Island.