More veterans died last year from suicide than from war.
But some volunteers in Eastern North Carolina, including Johnston County, are trying to change that.
The group, which includes veterans who have seen combat, has started a crisis-response team. When a veteran is going through a crisis, he or she can call the crisis number and a volunteer will talk through the veteran’s problems and guide him to resources. Crises include suicidal thoughts, post traumatic stress disorder, the effects of a traumatic brain injury, financial crisis and homelessness.
The service is free, and in just two months, about 40 veterans have received help. Johnston County has about 14,000 veterans.
“Saving lives is something that everyone can agree on,” said Gary Cunha, a suicide-prevention coordinator who is helping with the project.
“With Memorial Day coming up, it’s time for us as a nation to kind of reflect on who gave up all their tomorrows for all of our todays ... and help those who made it back to live comfortably and to live well, to recover and heal from their wounds, both the ones we can see and the ones we can’t see,” Cunha said.
How it works
The group created a flier, with contacts and phone numbers, that it is trying to get into as many hands as possible through veterans’ groups, the Department of Veterans Affairs and nearby military bases, including Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg.
The families and friends of veterans can also call these numbers to find out how to help their loved one.
The flier explains when a person should call 911 instead of the crisis line. In the event of immediate danger, including harm to the veteran or another person, the caller should dial 911 right away. The caller should also make sure to tell first responders if the veteran suffers from PTSD.
But for non-emergencies, people can call the national Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255. This is staffed by trained counselors. Or a veteran can call one of the local contacts on the sheet. For Johnston and Wayne counties, those contacts are:
• Robert Boyette: 919-989-5067, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Rudy Baker: 919-202-6740, from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m.
• Michael McNeely, secondary contact: 252-371-2971 (daytime) and 252-235-4408 (nighttime).
Some veterans and their families might be hesitant to call 911, and this gives them a second option, said Robert Boyette, Johnston County’s director of veterans services.
“They’re not sure the level of care they would get or the understanding of the situation,” Boyette said. Emergency dispatchers might not know how to help a person with PTSD or might be unaware of resources available only to veterans.
That’s why the group is reaching out to local emergency responders to offer them crisis training. Johnston Community College recently hosted one of these sessions, and some of the county’s first responders have received training in responding to mental illness.
Johnny Borunda started the crisis team after his son tried to kill himself by threatening a police officer last year in Wilson. Borunda’s son had tried to kill himself before, and this time tried to do so by threatening a cop with a knife and asking to be shot.
Veterans have years of combat training, Borunda said. “You can’t approach that person the same way you would a regular civilian who doesn’t have that type of training,” he said.
Police shot Borunda’s son, but he survived the wound to the stomach and is recovering well, Borunda said. He hopes the crisis response team can keep situations like this from happening.
According to Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans a day kill themselves. “We lose more veterans to suicide than we have in combat, which is unacceptable, and it’s fixable, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” Borunda said.
A growing need
According to the Red Cross, Eastern North Carolina will gain 25,000 more veterans as bases wind down, Borunda said. That means this part of the state will have more people who need to be connected with veterans services.
The group wants to be proactive and make sure those combat veterans don’t feel alone as they make the transition to civilian life.
“We just want the public aware, especially dealing with families,” Borunda said. “A lot of times veterans are apprehensive to ask for help until it’s almost too late. ... We want to get (to) him before it gets too bad where they call the cops.”
Breaking the stigma
Rudy Baker is one of the crisis contacts in Johnston County and also a combat veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 33 years. He said military culture shouldn’t have a stigma against seeking help for mental illness. When he was in the military, soldiers had the same problems: It was just called shell shock back then, he said, rather than PTSD.
“Asking for help is not a stigma, it’s smart,” Baker said.
Cunha is the suicide-prevention coordinator at the Durham VA hospital. He said the crisis-response team is a community effort, involving multiple veterans’ groups, volunteers, friends and family.
“We cannot do this by ourselves,” Cunha said. “We have a saying in the VA: Suicide prevention is everybody’s business.”