Suicide prevention summit aims to educate, keep veterans from isolating themselves

Director Jason Hall speaks with LaTasha Peeler at the VA Eastern Kansas Suicide Prevention Summit Friday morning. The summit addressed the underlying problems behind active-duty soldier and veteran suicide as well as providing information about resources for veterans who may be struggling with depression and other mental health problems. The summit's aim was to educate everyone — civilians and soldiers alike — in order to lower the suicide rate among those who have served in the military.

Suicide is a plague among veterans and active-duty soldiers which the VA Eastern Kansas Suicide Prevention Summit, held Friday morning, sought to address.

The Commanding General of Fort Riley Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin spoke during the gathering. He said the culture itself needs to change and asked people to be aware of any indicators that a person might be depressed or considering suicide.

“We can never assume that problems will solve themselves or that our gut feeling about a friend, family member, or coworker is meaningless ... members of our community are attempting suicide, which means we need to arm ourselves with the tools necessary to take action and combat suicide now,” Martin said. “Your immediate action can save someone’s life. I know that together we can and will achieve the goal of eliminating suicide within our active and veteran ranks.”

Director of the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System Rudy Klopfer said veteran suicides could be prevented by communities and community members working together — not just the VA, not just Fort Riley, and not just the people of Junction City.

“Suicide prevention is everyone’s business,” he said.  

Jason Hall, the director of “Thank You For Your Service,” addressed veterans, family members and community members gathered at the summit. The film, which is based on a nonfiction book of the same name, addresses the aftermath of veterans’ return from deployments, after they’d seen combat.

The title of the film itself is somewhat ironic — according to Hall, saying thank you to a veteran for their service is often a cop out on the part of civilians who don’t know what else to say to soldiers.

This is part of the problem veterans face when coming home — a general ignorance on the part of the civilian population and a disconnect soldiers may not know how to fix. 

This disconnect has an affect on soldiers’ families as well, both because the soldiers have missed large parts of their families’ lives while deployed and because the families too may struggle to understand what their soldiers have endured. 

The film deals with invisible injuries soldiers come home with, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A lot of these guys who come home with (PTSD), they put on civilian clothes, and can go the rest of their life without anyone knowing they served unless they tell them,” Hall said. 

Actor Scott Haze, who played the role of Michael Adam Emory, was also on scene at the summit to talk about his experience and what he learned in filming “Thank You For Your Service.” He stayed with the real-life Emory for several weeks while preparing for his role.

Haze said he was struck by the every day struggles Emory, who suffered a traumatic brain injury overseas, endured and how tremendous they were — how much courage it took to face them. 

Something kept Emory from suicide, however, he noted.

“He told me many times he had thought about, he had plans to take his life, but he always set the plans further down the road after he accomplished something ... He kept pushing back the suicide date further down the road,” Haze said. 

Several resource-providers were at the summit, on hand to speak with veterans and their family members about what’s available for veterans in this area. Many of those present offered activities veterans that might distract them from feelings of depression and let them know they’re not alone by introducing them to others such as themselves.

Vice President of Sheep Dog Impact Assistance Kacey Wiltz was present at the summit, representing her group which provides activities to all kinds of disabled first responders, including veterans.

The group tries to help people who have dedicated their lives to helping others by empowering them, she said.

Wiltz is a first responder herself, a member of the Lawrence Police Department, and she understands that helping people like this to regain a sense of purpose is important to keeping them functioning.

Some of these activities, which aim to restore a certain level of autonomy to people who may have lost theirs, include outdoor adventures such as sky diving and scuba diving. 

The group tries not to limit its participants — according to Wiltz, the group recently had a police officer who was paralyzed from the waist down take part in a hog hunt.

“We have a lot of guys — double amputees, single amputees — and they’re like, ‘what do I do now? I’m not in the service, I can’t help anybody out,’” she said. 

Project Healing Waters, instructs disabled vets on how to create hand carved fishing poles and flies as well as teaching them to fish, according to teacher Ken Shortman, who is a disabled veteran himself.

Volunteers with the group also provide vets someone to talk to when they need help from someone who understands. 

“We can help them work their way through because a lot of us have already been through these situations,” volunteer Chase Credeur, also a disabled veteran, said.

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