Column: The urgency to prevent suicide by veterans

Trained service dogs serve a key role in the nation’s efforts.
Vietnam veteran Bill Grant and his service dog, Maddy, work with certified master dog trainer Mary Peter at K9 Partners for Patriots in Brooksville in April 2016 as she introduces scenarios the pair will encounter in public. Peter is bringing a measure of peace and functionality to veterans as they cope with anxieties borne out of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. [Times (2016) files]
Vietnam veteran Bill Grant and his service dog, Maddy, work with certified master dog trainer Mary Peter at K9 Partners for Patriots in Brooksville in April 2016 as she introduces scenarios the pair will encounter in public. Peter is bringing a measure of peace and functionality to veterans as they cope with anxieties borne out of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. [Times (2016) files]
Published June 12
Updated June 12

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

In January 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security to collaborate and provide ‘‘seamless access’’ to mental health and suicide prevention resources for veterans.

A second executive order in March “to empower veterans and end veterans suicide” created the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force. The task force was charged with three objectives to achieve by March 2020:

• Develop a ‘‘comprehensive national public health road map’’ outlining the strategies to effectively lower the veteran suicide rate with a focus on community engagement.

• Propose a program to Congress for making grants to local communities, which will increase collaboration; integrate service delivery and coordinate resources for veterans.

• Produce a national strategy to improve the coordination and execution of research on veteran suicide prevention.

Families of veterans with PTSD know the urgency. They know the severity of PTSD and that, contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds. Not all scars are visible. Thousands of veterans remain haunted by horrific experiences. It’s a lesson we all need to understand.

At K9 Partners for Patriots in Brooksville, a program that exists to prevent suicide, we work for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Traumatic Brain Injury and Military Sexual Trauma. Before we pair a veteran with a dog that they will train from the onset (with our trainers) over a 19-week program, the connection with the veteran begins with empathy and respect.

After a veteran applies, the paperwork is expedited by a veteran liaison who has walked in their shoes. The same person they speak to, initially by phone, conducts a face-to-face interview at our facility.

We strive to manage their expectations and reduce anxiety. It’s the care they receive from the onset that puts each veteran in a position to succeed. They truly have a family here who is protective of them. We’ve got their back.

It’s a notable contrast from the VA experience where too many tell us they’re bounced from one physician to another, rapidly processed and, more often than not, prescribed a new pill.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says suicide prevention is the department’s ‘‘top clinical priority.’’ But the every day treatment given each veteran walking through their doors must align with VA’s aspirations. Service dogs that help mitigate the severity and frequency of their veterans’ stress and anxiety are not always welcome at VA facilities. Some doctors tell our veterans not to bring their service dog to their appointments.

Veteran attitudes toward the VA are not likely to improve until all VA doctors and staff treat them like human beings who are greater than the sum of their symptoms. That epiphany must come from within, and not because a bureaucrat made suicide prevention a ‘‘priority’’ in a memo to department heads.

Gregg Laskoski is communications director for K9 Partners for Patriots, a Brooksville nonprofit dedicated to preventing veteran suicide.

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