‘Mental battlefield’: Semper Fi Barn and Veterans Affairs are part of an arsenal to address veteran suicide, mental health

New numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs finds 17 veterans take their own life, every day.
The VA is launching a new campaign in hopes of battling the continuing problem of mental health among our veterans
Published: May. 10, 2023 at 8:49 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - New numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs finds 17 veterans take their own life, every day. It’s a grim statistic, but there’s a new campaign they’ve launched to battle this enemy. And there’s a local arsenal helping those still on a mental battlefield.

Andrew Stallings was in seventh grade when the nation had a Pearl Harbor-like moment.

“I knew this moment was going to change my life,” Stalling said. “And the 9/11 attacks very much did.”

Interest in military service increased by almost 10% and Stallings entered after graduation.

“It is a big step,” he said.

Meanwhile, the nation was in the thick of Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, and Stallings found himself deployed as a human intelligence collector, interrogating prisoners of war in enemy territory.

“Our area of operation wasn’t just Bagram, it was the entire surrounding area,” he said.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, and critical information to collect on adversaries.

“I was very surprised because it’s extremely stressful,” Stalling said.

And the stress was so bad after a year of being deployed he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“PTSD is like being a prisoner in your own head,” Stallings said. “Everyone that you know is trying to help you, but the bars are in front of your own eyes are what keep you from doing anything productive.”

A potentially debilitating condition that’s still with him and has even prevented him from attending school.

“The focus would not be there,” he said.

Which is why he’s here at Semper Fi Barn, a no cost five-acre day and overnight retreat for veterans like him.

“This is a place to relax, to remember and to restore,” said Tom Von Kaenel, Semper Fi Barn co-founder. “That’s what it’s here for. It’s for them.”

“And there’s things that only veterans will only tell other veterans,” added Brandon Cooper, Semper Fi director of outreach. “So, with that release we hope to help them restore their sanity if you will.”

It’s a secluded space in Central, South Carolina, and within these trees is a revolving brotherhood making visits.

“He saw a total of 20 (veterans) over three days,” Von Kaenel said.

“In order to get out of the hole, you need to reach out to somebody that’s been there,” Cooper added.

Christopher Loftis, Ph.D., is the national director for VA/DoD Mental Health Collaboration who this month is promoting the launch of the “Today I Am” campaign. It’s encouraging more veterans to be transparent about their mental health and the burdens on their shoulders.

“Relationship struggles, career struggles, and even retirement,” Loftis said. “Often retirement is a very stressful time for veterans who might have jumped full head-on into their careers and families and put off some really long-standing issues they’ve been struggling with.”

While Stallings’ restored at Semper Fi Barn, the VA wants veterans to know they too are an option. Maketheconnection.net offers treatment support and a resource locator for everything from finances to relationships, spirituality, and identity.

“Regardless of what you’re going through, I would first encourage you to look at the videos from other veterans who are talking about all kinds of issues that will help you to maybe understand a little bit more about what you’re going through and learn how to talk about it,” Loftis said.

Why is this so important? The latest Department of Veteran Affairs Suicide Prevention report finds while the suicide rate is falling, it’s still the second leading cause of death for veterans under 45. And the suicide rate among veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 has increased by 95% over the last 20 years.

“What we know is that the risk of suicide goes way down when you’re connected,” Loftis said.

“They don’t know to come rescue you, unless you pop smoke,” Cooper added. “I have three suicide attempts under my belt, but luckily I was not successful, and I am not alone, and I couldn’t not have gotten to the point I am now without help.”

And after this rescue, Stallings’ already feeling empowered. He plans to use his GI Bill and enter a local college.

“I was able to reflect, and evaluate and make a path forward,” he said.

Semper Fi Barn belongs to all veterans who served honorably and were good citizens, and will be a permanent memorial to the fidelity, valor, and love of veterans, their friends, and family to their comrades, their country, and its citizens. To learn more visit https://www.semperfibarn.org/

And to learn more about the VA’s ‘Today I Am’ campaign for mental health visit https://www.maketheconnection.net/