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Vets reach out to peers

The recent suicide of an Oregon National Guard soldier with ties to The Dalles has spurred two veterans to take action in hopes of preventing another tragedy.

“We want to let our local veterans know they are not alone, that there are others facing the same types of challenges,” said Wasco County Veteran Service Officer Russell Jones.

“Maybe we can give them enough of a support mechanism that they will reach out for help when they are in a crisis.”

Jones and Dr. Pat Stone are seeking a moderator for peer group meetings that will take place at the Veterans’ Service Office, 201 Federal Street. Anyone interested in filling that role for the 60-minute sessions can reach Jones at 541-506-2502 or via email at russellj@co.wasco.or.us

“This is not going to be therapy, it’s just going to be veterans getting together and discussing issues,” said Stone, a psychologist who is setting up the framework for the meetings.

Jones spent more than 11 years in the Navy and Stone is a decorated Army veteran from the Vietnam War. The first phase of their plan is to hold an open house once a moderator is onboard to see if there is enough interest among veterans in The Dalles and surrounding communities to start regular peer group meetings.

Stone will be unable to facilitate the meetings much of the time because he and wife Barbara are spending their retirement years traveling and enjoying time with two grown children and four grandchildren.

Jones does not want to take the lead to avoid any potential conflict because his job is to process claims for veterans.

“I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable so I am going to help out but I don’t want to be in charge,” he said.

They say the suicide of Chad Fike, 22, has brought home the reality of the national crisis.

Fike was found dead July 8 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Gresham. His father, 1st Lt. Brian Fike, served as rear detachment commander for The Dalles Armory until he left to train and then deploy to Afghanistan in 2011 as part of the 1186th Military Police Company.

Chad was a specialist assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Cavalry Brigade Combat Team that included about 150 soldiers from Alpha Company in The Dalles and deployed to Iraq in late 2010. He was a machine gunner and helped provide convoy security for U.S. troops working to withdraw equipment as part of Operation New Dawn.

The model for the local peer group will be copied from highly-structured sessions that Stone attended last winter while visiting Arizona. It was his first experience getting together with veterans from several war eras and he found it very beneficial to be around others who had “been there, done that.”

“I just felt like it was something I needed,” said Stone. “It connected me to a group of folks who had gone through similar circumstances in their lives.”

At the start of the 60-minute meetings, the moderator handed out topic sheets and guided the discussion so that everyone had an opportunity to weigh in on the issue of the day. No discussions of politics or religion were allowed to keep the dialogue from devolving into arguments.

Most of the topics at a meeting of veterans were to be expected. People shared their coping strategies for chronic anger, sleep disturbances, hyper-vigilance and other PTSD-related issues. But the agenda also included broader societal discussions, such as the psychological effect of steeping oneself in entertainment with a lot of violent and unhappy content.

“Everyone has their own sort of wisdom about these problems,” said Stone. “With structuring, it works well to bring veterans from the different wars together. There is a little razzing but that is to be expected and done with good humor.”

Once the peer group is established, the second phase of the local support effort will be to create “focus teams” to provide practical assistance to any veteran in crisis. The Dalles has a large veteran community – 12 percent of the population as opposed to 8 percent nationally – so Jones said there will be a broad base of individuals and support organizations to draw resources from.

The focus teams will be available anytime a service agency representative or law enforcement official identifies a veteran who is having trouble coping with life.

Jones and Stone don’t know if the new outreach effort will stop another soldier from taking his or her life, but they feel it is the next necessary step for the community to take in its support of veterans.

Fike was one of 22 veterans across the country who committed suicide on July 8, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. That number is up 20 percent from 2007 and follows a record high in 2012 of suicides among active duty service members. After almost 12 years at war, one member of the military commits suicide each day.

Soldiers diagnosed with the major depression that accompanies Traumatic Brain Injuries caused by exposure to bomb blasts and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of their combat experiences are 11 times more likely to commit suicide, according to the VA.

“We all need to be doing everything that we can do to help veterans,” said Jones.

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