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Planned consolidation of military suicide prevention programs irks some

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: May 30, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — A suicide prevention program run by a former Fort Carson commander will shut down in August as the Pentagon trims costs and merges the work into another program.

Retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, a vocal suicide prevention advocate when he led Fort Carson from 2007-09, helped set up the New Jersey-based Vets 4 Warriors call center, providing peer counseling for troubled troops nationwide and referrals for services. All the call takers at the 24-hour center are veterans trained to help troops overcome life struggles. The program, begun in 2012, has averaged more than 20,000 calls per year.

Ed Anderson, a retired Army lieutenant general who runs the National Homeland Defense Foundation in Colorado Springs, said cutting the program amid a suicide epidemic is nonsensical.

"Anything that addresses suicide is worth keeping," he said.

The program is aimed at helping troops through problems before they reach the point of suicide.

"It's not a crisis line," Graham said in an interview last year.

The Pentagon said leaders want to shutter Graham's $3 million program so they can add something similar to the Defense Department's $400 million Military One Source assistance program.

"Vets 4 Warriors provided a peer-to-peer capability that was not previously available via Military One Source, which is expanding its capabilities to provide this particular benefit," Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said.

Graham's dedication to preventing suicide and helping military families deal with trauma is personal. The general lost his son Kevin to suicide in 2002. In 2003, his son Jeff was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"There are a lot of Kevins out there," Graham said in a December interview.

That's what led Graham to create Vets 4 Warriors. He said by helping troops deal with day-to-day struggles and giving them mentors on the journey, the program stops suicide.

In recent days, Graham has declined comment on the change because he is no longer authorized to speak about the program to the media.

Veterans advocates in the Pikes Peak region, though, are talking plenty about the shutdown.

"This is another prime example of the bureaucracy," said Terrance McWilliams who runs military programs for the El Pomar Foundation.

Cutting a suicide prevention program seems to go against the Pentagon's all-out effort to stop suicide in the ranks. The Obama administration has called prevention of military suicides a top goal and the president proposed spending $7 billion on the effort in 2016. Suicides among active-duty military spiked at 268 in 2014, up from 254 a year earlier.

Anderson said one thing that makes Vets 4 Warriors special is the involvement of Graham and his wife, Carol.

"Mark and Carol have investment in this issue, so I know it is being done well," he said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark, who serves on the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance's Military Affairs Council, said the dedication Graham brings to suicide prevention will be difficult to replace.

"His heart is in the right place," Clark said.

The Pentagon move also reverses earlier praise it has issued for the program.

"The peer support offered by Vets 4 Warriors is a great benefit to the total force," Jessica Wright, then-undersecretary of Defense for personnel, said in 2013. "I'm impressed with the peer counselors' commitment, and as veterans themselves, they understand and can really connect with callers."

Seal said the Pentagon, though, now thinks it can do better consolidating Vets 4 Warriors services under Military One Source.

"Our highest commitment is to our service members and their families, and we are dedicated to providing them with the best possible avenues for assistance," she said.

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©2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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