Veteran-led organizations seek to combat mental health issues
By BRENDAN QUEALY | The (Traverse City, Mich.) Record-Eagle | Published: April 13, 2019
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — The note was written. Matt Marciniak was done. He was tired. He didn’t want what his life had become anymore.
The U.S. Marine Corps veteran sent a quick text to his friend from his house in Tampa, Fla., asking him to make sure that some of his possessions got to his parents. Marciniak told his friend he was “just going to go to sleep for a while.”
Marciniak’s friend knew what that meant. This wasn’t going to be a quick nap or a refreshing eight hours. Marciniak was ready for his life to end.
“(He) crawled through my damn window,” Marciniak said. “I don’t know if I’d go crawling through people’s windows at 8 o’clock in the morning, but he decided it was a good idea.”
His friend and fellow veteran saved his life and took him fishing.
Marciniak’s friend was part of an organization called The Fallen Outdoors, a national group that helps veterans cope with their struggles through outdoor activities including hunting, fishing and hiking.
Marciniak moved to northern Michigan in 2015 and found there was no TFO chapter in the state. He set out to change that and is now one of the Michigan team’s leaders.
“I just hope that if somebody really is in a tough spot that they reach out,” Marciniak said.
In January, VA officials said that suicide prevention is the organization’s “top clinical priority” but that the efforts are “not to get every veteran enrolled in VA care, but rather to equip communities to help veterans get the right care.”
More than 2 million veterans sought and received help for mental health issues through the VA in 2017.
Marciniak knows how close he was to becoming one of the thousands of veterans who kill themselves every year. A report from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that in 2016, 6,079 veterans committed suicide — 159 of those in Michigan. Veteran suicide rates nationally are at 30.1 percent, which is nearly 13 percentage points higher than the national rate of 17.5 percent. Veterans in Michigan are killing themselves at a lower rate, but one that is still alarming to people like Marciniak and others, at 26.2 percent.
Marciniak sees veteran suicide as “a strange anomaly.”
“As a vet, there’s always the thinking that, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me. I don’t have those issues. Everybody else is making stuff up,’ ” he said. “Sometimes you get to the end of the rope and there’s nowhere to go,”
Marciniak receives some of his care through the VA and said the organization is stretched thin. That is where veteran-led organizations like The Fallen Outdoors and other locally based groups such as 22-2-None, Reining Liberty Ranch and Peace Ranch come into play.
“We have to watch over each other,” Marciniak said. “People fall through the cracks at the VA. The VA isn’t a catch-all. The VA is so big and (encompasses) so many people, they can’t go around every day, asking if you’re going to kill yourself. There’s just not enough time in the day.”
Dave Wenkel, a Marine Corps veteran, is president of 22-2-None, a nonprofit led by veterans to help provide support and to combat veteran suicide. The goal of his group, Wenkel said, is to take some of the load off the VA and help those guys who have been beaten down by life after serving.
“If somebody is going to get pushed aside at the VA, that’s something we can’t have,” Wenkel said. “If the one place that’s supposed to help can’t help them, then the snowball is gaining speed downhill. We’re here to slow that snowball down, stop it, melt it and just get rid of it.”
One of those snowballs they helped stop was Andy Schwab’s. The Army veteran was struggling to pay his rent and other bills after losing his job. Schwab, 44, a single father, had full custody of his infant son but was the only member left of his family in northern Michigan.
“I had no one to back me up. I had just enough money in my bank account to get groceries for me and my son. I was ready to just throw in the towel,” he said. “I felt like I was a failure to my son in every way.”
Wenkel reached out to Schwab after seeing some of his posts on Facebook and offered help — help Schwab said he had a tough time accepting at first. Schwab said he felt some shame that he even needed assistance, but he soon was grateful after Wenkel and his team donated a car to Schwab so he could get to his job, helped find child care for his son and helped with some of his bills.
“It wasn’t a handout, it was a hand up,” he said. “That was probably the biggest relief I’ve felt in my life.”
In 2012, an average of 22 veterans were committing suicide every day. That number has dropped to 20 in recent years, a number Wenkel still sees as unacceptable. But he sees progress being made, and he knows his organization and others like The Fallen Outdoors have made a difference.
“I know I have talked to people who got a hold of me the next day and have said, ‘Man, you have no idea where I was at yesterday. Talking to you and you guys doing what you did walked me back off that ledge,’ ” he said. “We have those success stories. To me, that’s progress. I know for a fact that we’ve helped veterans not join the statistics.”
Veterans thinking about hurting or killing themselves or others, experiencing an emotional crisis, feeling hopeless or engaging in self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.