MVAA launches historic effort to combat veteran suicide
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency announced two collaborative initiatives this week to combat veteran suicide in Michigan – a combined investment of up to $3.4 million.
The historic effort includes a $1.2 million investment from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration and a federal suicide-prevention grant from the VA of $750,000 per year for up to three years. The funding will support direct outreach to veterans and address the factors that can lead to suicide such as employment, housing, health care and mental health issues.
The announcement coincided with the release of VA's annual suicide report showing that 178 veterans died by suicide in Michigan in 2020. Over a five-year period (2016-2020), 882 veterans died by suicide, an average of 176 per year.
"Veteran suicide remains a persistent problem in Michigan and nationwide, and we must use every resource and tool we have to protect the lives of our former service members," Whitmer said. "Today's investment will expand funding for suicide prevention efforts in Michigan and build on the ongoing efforts of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency to keep veterans and their families safe and healthy."
MVAA Director Zaneta Adams said effective veteran suicide prevention strategy involves a holistic approach. That means addressing the issues that can start a veteran spiraling toward crisis such as housing and employment challenges, substance abuse and lack of mental health supports for combat PTSD. But the first step is getting our former service members to identify as veterans and to understand the benefits and resources that are available to them.
The MVAA, through its new Michigan Veteran Connector initiative, will connect with organizations and businesses across the state in hopes of getting their help in reaching veterans. By simply asking customers if they served in the military and, if so, referring them to the MVAA's 1-800-MICH-VET hotline, these Veteran Connectors can ultimately help veterans get linked to the resources they need to thrive.
"We know that connection to health care and other resources reduces suicides for veterans, so when we help a veteran with housing needs or emergency grant assistance, we are part of the prevention," Adams said. "But we need help from everyone. From barbershops to banks to schools to hospitals to churches, we should all take part in preventing suicides among veterans and their families."
The MVAA is also stressing safe gun storage and free gun locks through the VA, as nearly 70% of veteran suicides are the result of firearm injuries. In addition, the agency is promoting the VA's easy-to-remember new Crisis Line number; veterans can now simply dial 988 and press 1 to be connected to a crisis counselor.
How one Michigan couple is giving back to their fellow veterans
Michael Torrez, 42, of West Branch, has called the Veterans Crisis Line several times to help battle buddies and for his own suicidal ideations. Torrez, a former tank crewman who served two tours in Iraq, lost five friends in battle and three more to suicide after they returned home. At one point following his discharge in 2012, Torrez was homeless and used alcohol to cope.
But Torrez would find hope through VA housing and work therapy programs and by meeting his wife, fellow Army veteran Angela Torrez.
Angela Torrez lost her 16-year-old daughter to suicide in 2018. She decided to give her pain a purpose. She is one of the founding members of a local suicide prevention coalition and is in the process of obtaining her master's degree in social work with a specialization in suicide prevention. She and Michael also volunteer as peer mentors for a national veterans' organization.
In June 2022, Michael and three battle buddies organized a reunion of his former unit near Fort Mitchell, Alabama. More than 70 veterans and family members showed up. One fellow veteran was so thankful to reconnect and stated before the reunion that he was "just waiting to die."
Michael Torrez said the reunion provided healing, forgiveness and even an instance of closure. It also reconnected veterans that live minutes away from one another.
On Sept. 21, Michael and Angela also participated in a roundtable discussion on veteran suicide prevention in Lansing with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, MVAA Director Zaneta Adams and other veteran advocates.
Here is Michael in own words …
Michael Torrez: 'You don't have to fight alone'
During my first deployment with Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2005, I was three months in and my father passed away from cancer. I did not find out about his condition until I was in basic. I had a very short time to grieve and mourn, and back to Iraq I went. I also experienced getting hit with an IED my first tour. Through all this, the fight and mission continued.
During my second deployment, in which I was stop-lossed and sent to OIF for the surge in 2007, five of my battle buddies were killed in three separate incidents. At one point in time during my second tour we were ordered to clear a route on foot for explosives, and after that I noticed a change in becoming reckless with my life. I feel as if this reckless behavior was turned on and I had no way to turn it off. I was left with survivors' guilt, severe PTSD and no hope.
All the while things changed back home. You change. That sacrifice had an effect.
After returning home and discharging from active duty, I couldn't hold it together. Alcohol misuse, navigating a divorce, Friend of the Court and legal trouble coupled with untreated mental health conditions led me to feel hopeless. I wanted to end my life.
I called the Veterans Crisis Line to help de-escalate everything I was feeling and experiencing. They helped get me to where I needed to be mentally. I didn't give up hope, and I knew with help and resources my quality of life would improve. I just had to keep seeking help, being transparent in my needs day to day. Knowing that things will get better. I never imagined myself where I am today.
I have also called the Veterans Crisis Line for a battle buddy who lives out of state. It was the thing to do when you get a phone call from someone telling you, "I love you, goodbye."
I was able to learn to be vocal with my mental health needs. I started receiving assistance from the VA Compensated Work Therapy Program and HUD-VASH housing voucher. I began seeing a mental health provider who was very supportive and who I still see today. I have had this specific provider involved in my care for nine years now.
Today, I still have issues with navigating the systems, but I have the tools in place, and a support system to help. I have connected with various agencies, programs and services and allowed myself to begin a healing process. I am going on seven years sober and am continuing forward with my mental health and wellbeing.
To my battle buddies, we fought together then, and we can fight together now. Reach out to your battle buddies, connect with one another and use the various veteran agencies and services that exist. There are here to help; there is hope. You don't have to fight alone.
If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press 1; text 838255; or chat online confidentially at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Michigan, VA announce partnership making it easier to vote
On National Voter Registration Day (Sept. 20), the state announced a partnership with the VA, Fox 2 reported.
"We're going to be providing voter registration information and assistance to veterans and their dependents at some VA facilities across the state," said Angela Benander, deputy chief of communications with the Michigan Secretary of State.
The effort allows for quick access to vital information, Benander said.
VA is partnering with Michigan, Kentucky and Pennsylvania to create a pilot voter registration program that provides voter registration information, materials and, if requested, assistance to veterans, eligible dependents and caregivers at select VA facilities.
VA has been working closely with election authorities in these three states to determine how the department can fulfill voter registration requirements set forth by state law and consistent with the spirit and mandates of the National Voter Registration Act to ensure veterans and eligible dependents and caregivers receive accurate and timely information regarding voter registration.
Read more at VA News and Information.
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