What today’s returning veterans need most

Posted: September 14, 2021 in First Responders, Health, In the News, Veterans
An OpEd by Assemblyman Kevin Byrne & former Navy SEAL Alex Othmer.

Veterans of our nation’s military continue to struggle with high rates of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Since 2018, military veteran suicides have increased to nearly twice the rate as nonveterans (Suicide Among Veterans), with those between the ages of 18 and 34 being three times more likely to die by suicide than their nonveteran counterparts.(Suicide Among Veterans)

With what has just unfolded in Afghanistan, where 800,000 veterans served and over 2,000 service members paid the ultimate sacrifice, we must be prepared, now more than ever, to provide more resources and support to address veteran suicide as many of our service members may now be forced to question what their purpose was in that painful 20-year war. Many who served and supported our efforts in Afghanistan, including Gold Star Families of the fallen and the tens of thousands who still carry the wounds of war will likely experience feelings of betrayal, resentment and confusion for years to come in the wake of the recent withdrawal from the region.

Lots of active-duty military and veterans were involved in operations aimed at the rescue or protection of American citizens in Afghanistan and outlying regions. Current estimates indicate hundreds of American citizens are still left behind since the withdrawal, which only further warps our veterans’ sense of purpose and identity — two concepts that can haunt nearly all veterans during their transition to civilian life.

It is not only our military veterans in need, but also veterans of our first responder communities who often experience just as much, if not more, traumatic experiences during their careers.

The upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will place another dark shadow over both first responder and veteran mental health. Those service members who found themselves joining the ranks of the U.S. military in the wake of 9/11, as well as our firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency services who responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center or supported recovery operations, will certainly be reminded of that horrific day, further amplifying the invisible wounds they carry over the past two decades.

On average, between 18 and 20 military veterans die to suicide each day (Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, pg 16), and more first responders died by suicide last year than in the line of duty. Considering our military service members and first responders sacrifice so much for our freedoms, safety and security, it is our American obligation that we not only raise awareness of this mental health epidemic, but also operationalize effective treatment options which are scalable and accessible to our veteran populations.

A noteworthy barrier that often exists in the veteran mental health arena is the stigma and cultural norms associated with seeking mental health care. Although there have been widespread improvements on the overall acceptance of seeking out mental health support, more than half our veterans still refrain from seeking help because of the thought that they will be viewed as weak, incompetent, unfit for duty or incapable. Thus, we must not only build capacity to treat veteran mental health issues, but also establish methods to normalize and draw out veterans’ willingness to seek help.

Two proven approaches to addressing veteran mental health issues are animal ownership and outdoor recreational therapy. A growing body of evidence suggests that these methods can provide powerful therapeutic effects on one’s mental health; nearly all of us, both veteran and non-veteran, can relate to the therapeutic effects of these treatments through personal experience. What’s more, animal ownership and outdoor recreation may be more effective in negotiating veteran stigmas and norms associated with seeking out mental health care than other alternatives.

There are numerous charitable organizations that provide great services and support to military veterans, first responders, and both. Many organizations support families of the fallen, and others care for our wounded warriors by providing valuable financial, physical and emotional support.  One non-profit organization that’s at the front and center of this challenge isGuardian Revival.  That’s in part because Guardian Revival, through its Boots & Paws and Another Summit programs, is offering something in the Tri-State area few others provide.  Both of these programs welcome and engage members of our veteran and first responder community in a way that not only pushes back against harmful stigma, but provides quantifiable solutions and support. 

Boots & Paws provides veterans in need with working dogs for mental health support, and Another Summit is an outdoor adventure and education program which offers guided outdoor activities in the Hudson Valley. Both are proven methods for increasing veterans’ sense of belonging and helping with their transition into civilian life.

Raising awareness of our nation’s mental health issues for our military veterans and first responders is essential in addressing the overall problem, but it is only part of the answer.  We owe these brave men and women a debt we will never be able to fully repay and we are grateful to the many organizations who continue to stand up and provide services to them during their hour of need. Do what you can, get involved, and never forget the sacrifices that were made by these brave guardians.

Byrne is a state Assemblyman and former EMT and volunteer firefighter. Othmer is a former Navy SEAL and Co-founder & Executive Director of Guardian Revival.