NORTHFIELD — It is nearly three years since veteran Charles Ingram took his own life outside the Veterans Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Northfield.
“He was not the first veteran to die by his own hands and certainly he will not be the last but his death was a tragedy that pointed out to the Veterans Administration the gaps in the system,” said U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Coordinator Matthew Jacobs. “From tragedy, hope has emerged. We want to reach all veterans and help them work through their issues.”
Veterans are encouraged to call the veterans crisis line, 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, where they can confidentially speak with a trained counselor 24 hours a day.
Jacobs is based at the CBOC in Northfield but works with veterans at risk of suicide in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. He works with a team of professionals like Cynthia Murray, Nurse Manager of Clinical Operations at the Northfield CBOC and Veterans Outreach Specialist Patrick Carney to get veterans help when they need it and where they need it.
Murray admitted that three years ago the Northfield CBOC was understaffed and for the veterans it was not simple to navigate the Veterans Administration system when seeking help. Jacobs along with Murray and Carney said that is what has really changed at the clinic. “We now have doubled the number of employees at the clinic,” said Murray. “When a veteran walks in the door we have the people in place to navigate them through and to get them the help they need. We have 11 staff members who are themselves veterans and understand. We have volunteers who are there to assist. It is amazing but South Jersey has truly taken the veterans to heart.”
Veterans advocate Marco Polo Smigliani of Egg Harbor Township said that while the Veterans Administration is making progress and having some successes, the problem of veterans taking their own lives is still quite critical. “If there is one thing that every person is in agreement on from the Veterans Administration in Washington to the state and local politicians to our volunteer and our staff working in the clinic, every person wants to help save these veterans who are taking their own lives, it is their number one goal. They are trying to help these guys and gals but it is so difficult. The statistics are 20 veterans a day committing suicide. That is 660 in a month and 8000 veterans in a year. We are losing more at home than we are losing in battle,” said Smigliani. “And even one veteran lost to suicide is too many.”
Smigliani praised the job Murray has done at the clinic to put together a team that cares about the veterans who come in the door for service. “She and her team are working hard to let the veterans know that they are not only respected for their service but also embraced as part of this community that cares for them and wants to help them,” said Smigliani.
Jacobs spoke of a veteran that had recently phoned the crisis line who was feeling overwhelmed, struggling and contemplating hurting himself. “He was surprised that after making the call that I called him back and we talked about his feelings and made arrangements to get together to talk more about his problems and get him the help he needed. He is one of our successes. That veteran (name withheld) said the VA was accessible and available and added that Jacobs came to his home and helped him at a time in his life when he was at his lowest point.
Carney was seriously wounded in Iraq. As Outreach Specialist he meets with veterans on a daily basis and said he lets them know that he can relate. “I speak honestly with veterans,” said Carney. “One of the things sitting down with a fellow veteran does is provide them with peer validation because I know how they feel, that they feel like crap and I understand that they are struggling with life and they are working through grief and despair. But I remind them that we have people to help them move forward that are not here to judge them, just to get them to a healthy place.”
Carney’s big push is to get veterans to sign up for benefits adding that a number of the returning veterans are young and feel like they don’t need anything from the Veterans Administration and just want to get on with their lives after the military. But Carney said to have the services available the VA needs to have veterans enrolled even if they never take any services for 30 years. “We just need to get them enrolled and if they need anything, they are already in the system,” said Carney.
Jacobs had a bag filled with hand outs he gives to veterans at events; baseballs, bandana’s, pens, gun locks and more. “They are little things that might make a connection and hopefully will make him think about where to turn for help,” said Jacobs.
Smigliani said people do not understand how difficult it is for returning veterans to go back to the life they had prior to the military. “When I served in Vietnam guys would serve one or two tours of duty, three was almost unheard of. Now we have veterans that are serving nine and ten deployments. That is nine and ten Christmases and anniversaries they are missing, nine and ten kids’ birthdays. Their lives are interrupted and when they come home the world has changed and they have to figure it out and put their lives together again and that does not even take into account for the veterans who served in active battles,” Smigliani said. “I hear their stories and I know they are suffering and we have to do whatever we can to help them reclaim their lives. They have interrupted their lives for all of us, so that we can have the freedoms we have. We owe it to these men and women to help them when they return.”
Jacobs said, “We are here to help veterans. Our crisis line has people ready to speak with veterans who are struggling.” The suicide prevention coordinator acknowledged that substance abuse disorder along with post traumatic stress disorder are very real things for veterans adjusting to life and the confidential counselors at veteran’s crisis line are in place and ready to help.
Billie Ingram, wife of U.S. Army veteran Charles Ingram was contacted but chose not to make comment for this story.
The veteran’s crisis line is 1-800-273-8255, press 1 to be connected to a counselor. Another source open to veterans is www.maketheconnection.net and geared for veterans seeking help.