I was sitting in an American Legion meeting the other night and a member in the back started asking questions about veteran suicides. He was concerned, and rightly so, having read the news reports on how many veterans commit suicide per day, and he wanted to do something about it. His suggestion was to ask the VA for the phone numbers of at-risk veterans so we could call and offer help… which as you can imagine, is a total impossibility. No way will the VA ever give out patient information, but he wasn’t familiar with HIPAA laws and his intentions were good. The conversation did get me thinking though, about how we –and by we I mean veterans, veteran service organizations, or anyone who is concerned, can help stop this ongoing tragedy affecting so many of our veterans and service members.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the past six months or so to be presented with a couple of great opportunities to be an asset to my fellow vets. The first was the chance to be a part of setting up and running this website, which I intend to be a place where service members, veterans, and family members can share their stories, advice, and experiences. The second was the opportunity to work for county government here in northern Virginia as a Veteran’s Services Coordinator, where I help veterans find and navigate any programs that are available to them. I’m relatively new in both of these capacities, but there are some trends that I am starting to see.

Much of the focus of suicide prevention, at least from a layman’s perspective, seems to be focused on “talking people off of the ledge,” when they have reached a point where there seems to be no hope. I am convinced that there is more that we can do to help our brothers and sisters before they ever reach that point, and I think a big part of the solution is already in place.

Many VFW or American Legion posts already have Service Officers. The VA and some other veterans service organizations have created Peer Navigator positions. And we are starting to see some county and state level governments creating Veterans Service Coordinator, or Service Officer positions like mine. In the past these positions, in many cases, have been intended to help veterans file their VA claim. In fact, I get the question all the time now when I introduce myself, if filing claims is what I do. (The answer to that is no, but I will connect you to many people who will.) I think these programs and positions could be so much more of an asset.

I think we could easily take the existing framework of the Service Officers, Peer Navigators, or whatever title they go by in a given organization, and expand their roles beyond just filing VA claims. The men and women in these positions should work to become as knowledgeable as possible about all programs available to veterans, and be a resource to help veterans get the help they need long before they ever feel like things are hopeless. I think that service organizations, non-profits, or government agencies should focus on expanding their peer navigator/service officer positions to advise veterans and service members on a much wider scope of needs.

I’m sure I can’t be the first to think of this, and I’m sure it’s going on already. I meet new people every day that are doing great things to help veterans. What I am suggesting though is that you, I, we… talk to the service organizations or non-profits we work with, or go to our local government board of supervisors and suggest that more peer navigators and Veteran service officer positions be staffed… or volunteer to do it yourself. Then spread the word like crazy that these assets are available to any veteran at any time. I think we just may help a lot of men and women avoid ever coming anywhere near that ledge.