The cost of American freedom

Losing our heroes to service-related demons

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We, as Americans, have long known the price of freedom.

Since the days of “one if by land, two if by sea,” families and community members came to understand the sacrifices given by our country’s service members.

Several hundred years since we called ourselves Patriots, a handful of wars, and countless military operations later, experts have a better grasp on the realities of the after-effects battle has on those who answer the call.

In the 21st Century, trauma and experiences that go hand-in-hand with being a military member are manifesting in ways different from the past --- or, in a much more public sense, at the very least, with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle.

While a majority of veterans transition from military life to being a civilian seamlessly, there are many folks who struggle to find gainful employment, wrestle with mental health hurdles or staying off the street.

In 2018, 19.2 million men and women were veterans, accounting for about 8 percent of the civilian population over age 18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of these, there were 4.1 million veterans who had served from September 2001 and on.

The unemployment rate for this age group of veterans --- 25 to 44, respectively --- was 3.9% in 2018.

A personal burden

For many, the price of shouldering the burden to defend America’s freedom now includes, in addition to years of commitment to the military, a harsh experience when re-entering the civilian world.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports on a single night in January 2018, 37,878 veterans were experiencing homelessness in the United States, accounting for just under 9% of all homeless adults.

The count showed 62% of the veterans were staying in sheltered locations, while 38% were staying in places not suitable for human habitation.

Approximately, 18 out of every 10,000 veterans in the United States experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018, the HUD report stated.

Arguably the most important issue facing all Americans is the increasing suicidal rate of young people.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs reports 45,390 American adults died by suicide in 2017, compared with 31,610 in 2005. These deaths included 6,139 veterans in 2017, compared with 5,787 in 2005.

In 2017, veterans accounted for 13.5% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults and constituted 7.9% of the U.S. adult population.

In 2005, veterans accounted for 18.3% of all deaths by suicide and represented 11.3% of the U.S. adult population. This equals a 43.6% increase in the number of suicide deaths in the general population, and a 6.1% increase in the number of suicide deaths in the veteran population.

In 2017, an average of 16.8 veterans died by suicide each day.

If you, or someone you know is struggling emotionally, call 1-800-273-TALK(8255) to be connected toll-free to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; or text 838255.

The free support is confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

America’s greatest asset

Scottsdale-based company, Vitanya Brain Performance and Wellness, is using neuroscience to optimize the brain and its abilities.

Vitanya Founder and CEO, Michael Southworth, contend their efforts are helping veterans repair damaged brains.

“We focus on brain performance programs; really a wellness and preventative approach to optimizing the brain and its abilities,” Mr. Southworth says. “We work with science and technology to help with neurology, and train the brain to find improved ways to operate.”

Vitanya was founded in Scottsdale seven years ago, and now has 20 locations in eight states.

Mr. Southworth says the previous theory was the brain was wired a certain way, and humans got what they got.

“What they discovered with a lot of new scientific testing is that the brain is what they call neuroplasticity --- it does change all the time,” Mr. Southworth said. “The example is, if you cut your skin, your skin will form a solution --- it will scar and close back up. The brain is the same way. When it’s injured or experiences trauma, the brain has the ability to repair itself.”

It was this knowledge that Vitanya was formed around, and the company works with science and technology to find improved ways to operate. Mr. Southworth says his company provides brain fitness.

Through this initial work, assisting veterans with their issues was a natural segue for Vitanya, he said.

“As we were working with individuals in the community that were suffering from different things, we started to notice there was a good number of veterans with some of the maladaptive behaviors --- veterans after service can’t sleep, have night trauma, nightmares, a lot of disruption --- from there it goes into other things they’re dealing with including anxiety and depression,”
-Michael Southworth, Found & CEO of Vitanya Brain Performance and Wellness 

“We became interested in what we can do to help veterans to perform better after service.”

Mr. Southworth says some of the greatest outcomes have been in tandem with mental health professionals.

“Our veterans are America’s greatest asset,” Mr. Southworth said. “They’re fighting for our freedom. One of the most concerning things to me, is when I see military veterans transitioning back to civilian life, there are many struggles --- a lot of those are war-stress induced. If you look at where all of that stems from, it is the brain.”

Mr. Southworth says when it sees veterans get back to their regular mental state, with lower anxiety, it increases their performance in every day life.

“It’s a real joy and pleasure to watch them excel in work, school and family when their brain functions correctly,” he said.

In a study Vitanya was involved in included five veterans over a six-month period, who showed a 74% reduction of impact of trauma; a 30% improvement to quality of life; and a 17% improvement of executive performance.

“We’ll see changes in sleep patterns within a week or two, after six months we found out anecdotally, three of those people got promotions and raises,” Mr. Southworth said.

“The most impactful was a self-reported average of 271% increased sleep satisfaction --- staying asleep, falling asleep and being able to rest more.”

Bridging the gap

Within the Valley of the Sun, one company actively engaging veterans for employment is Charles Schwab, who has an internal group coined the Military Veterans Network, with hundreds of members.

Army veteran Brenda Smull says when she transitioned from the military to civilian life in the 1990s, she used a specific recruiting firm that helped veterans get interviews with companies.

“They helped get your resume going --- things were different back then before the internet,” Ms. Smull explained.

“With Schwab we actively recruit and train veterans to come to our company. Back in the early 90s, I don’t remember that being as common.”

Ms. Smull says in her roll as a manager now, she sees the emphasis her company puts on helping veterans be successful in the workplace.

“The one thing we do is train, hire a manager on what military people are doing and appreciating their skill set --- there’s just so much more awareness of that,” she said. “In our company, we do have programs where you can get training on cyber security, financial literacy, IT operations --- a lot of military people are in cyber security.”

Ms. Smull says there are about three specific challenges veterans face when transitioning from the military to the corporate workforce.

“For me, it was the sense of urgency,” she said.

“It’s much slower in the corporate world than it is in a life-or-death situation. For a lot of people, it’s kind of jarring --- everything is at a slow pace, people aren’t at such high levels of stress. It was an interesting challenge.”

Secondly, veterans experience trouble translating the language to be more corporate and less military, Ms. Smull says, pointing out there is a lot of training on how to make a resume “more civilian.”

“The third would just be knowing where to start, and how to get connected to these other companies,” she said.

“I’ve noticed a lot of veterans go online, send resumes and hear nothing --- it’s like a black hole. You really have to connect with these organizations --- go to career fair, meet people.”

In a military unit, Ms. Smull says people take care of each other --- oftentimes unlike in the real-world.

“When you get out, you feel like you’re all alone. You have to connect with other groups of veterans and people who support veterans,” she said.

“Some people feel having served in the military is a weakness on their resume, but here it’s a strength, it’s appreciated and supported. I’ve worked in other parts of the country, it’s not the same in other areas.”

Denise Gredler, the founder and CEO of BestCompaniesAZ, is an employer branding firm that showcases company’s veteran initiatives.

“What we do is invite any companies that are veteran-committed or resource groups to come out to an event that we support for veterans. Our events are a little bit different, a lot of companies that do come out bring veterans with them to really help make it easy for veteran job seekers to connect and engage,” Ms. Gredler said. “We’re trying to facilitate very comfortable networking. Veterans will have resumes, their skills, and we teach them how to get their skills from their military background to the corporate life.”

Ms. Gredler acknowledges that a networking event is not for everyone, pointing to how uncomfortable it can be for some.

“That’s why we create and try to have veteran employers out there. Talking to a fellow Marine or someone from the Navy or Army try to facilitate that dialogue and make them comfortable,” she said.

Ms. Gredler has one last piece of advice: find a job you’re passionate about.

“Many veterans are underemployed,” she said. “We find that sometimes veterans will take a job just to get a job, it might not be what they’re passionate about or what they want to do. We try to coach and encourage veterans to look for a job that you’re passionate about. Look at your values, see if they align with company values. It may be worth starting in an entry level job that will promote from within --- have an open mind.”

Ms. Gredler’s company has its sixth annual “Vet Talks” business networking and career event for veterans coming up Feb. 13, 2020 is from 4 to 8 p.m. at the University of Phoenix. The event is free and open to the public.

A total of 30 veteran-friendly companies are expected to attend.

Make the connection

For the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, suicide prevention is focused on research and a data-driven understanding of the issue, Director of Suicide Prevention Dr. Matt Miller says, pointing out the VA is a leader in the discussion to fight suicide.

While the issue of suicide amongst veterans may not be a new issue, the reporting on the issue has become much more frequent and socially acceptable, compared to other generations of veterans, Dr. Miller explained.

“We’ve gotten better at reporting and analyzing it,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s only been within the last 20 years where we’ve been able to assemble a process that includes all states’ information regarding suicide, report nationally and a report for veterans.”

Also, due to stigma, suicide was significantly under-reported in the past, Dr. Miller said, acknowledging suicide in Army solders in 1915 leading into World War I was, at a rate perspective, just as high if not higher than current times.

“It’s not a new issue, but it does require a national discussion, it does require solutions,” he said.

Within the current group of veterans --- service members from post-Sept. 11 --- there are a unique risk factors being attended to, as well as unique resources, Dr. Miller explained.

“We know from research that the veterans in the 18-34 age group have a higher rate of substance use abuse and substance use disorder,” Dr. Miller said.

“Relationship problems have been immediately reported in proximity to the suicide, addressing relational issues through out-patient care, also through community connections and beyond.”

Dr. Miller says it is also known that veterans in that age group have a higher rate of interpersonal violence, particularly female veterans.

Despite the many reasons that may drive a veteran --- or any person --- to consider dying by suicide, Dr. Miller says every human can assist in suicide prevent.

“We know veterans are at a higher risk when they are disconnected from family, community and the like. They’re at less of a risk the more connected they are and within their community,” Dr. Miller said.

“Suicide prevention is something we can all do. We can all play a role, if you know someone --- veteran or not --- struggling, having a bad day, reach out to them. Make that connection.”

Resources available to help people make a connection with their loved can be found at: maketheconnection.net

For family members seeking resources to learn how to start a conversation with their veteran, visit: veteranscrisisline.net.

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