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Reach out, keep Veterans connected

Michael Kilmer
Michael Kilmer, Director, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System

It’s been 20 years since 9/11 shook our nation to its very core. We marked that sobering day with humanity and heroism. With communities calling for justice, a new generation started enlisting.

As America's longest war now ends, it is important for us to remember that more than 2.2 million Veterans supported operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, leaving an impact far and wide across individuals, families and communities.

I am a big believer in Veterans returning home to supportive communities where VA is the backbone of health care delivery. Together, we can seek to understand our Veteran’s needs and prevent isolation after any period of service.

Colorado has a long history of Veteran support. Active duty personnel are continuously transitioning to civilian careers from military facilities across Eastern Colorado. VA is preparing significant investments for the rapidly growing population in Colorado Springs.

Of the more than 300,000 Veterans in our catchment area, approximately 90,000 are assigned a primary care provider through the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS). We’re working to increase community engagement so more Veterans understand and maximize their benefits and services.

In September 2001, VA employed roughly 3,400 mental health providers. Today, there’s more than 25,600 providers and peer support staff—an increase of 650 percent. In Eastern Colorado, we’re expanding our peer support services to help more Veterans engage during difficult times.

In reviewing mental health outcomes, we’ve found tremendous value in community-centered, Veteran-driven efforts. VA ECHCS peer support specialists, comprised of all Veterans, provide short-term, evidence-based support groups that focus on recovery, or ways to effectively process stressors and cope. The military encourages the battle-buddy system and we are reinforcing that same concept with great success.

As challenging news broke during the final drawdown in Afghanistan, so close to the 9/11 anniversary, a VA ECHCS peer support specialist began hosting a virtual open discussion group. Cottrell Caldwell, an Army Veteran with three deployments to Iraq, had held check-ins during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but this was different.

Some unsure, others devastated, Veterans have been eager to join. From Vietnam to post-9/11, they share in struggles with contentious policy debates. Many feel combat operations needed to end but they’re unsure how to feel about the way everything ended, or where to take their critiques.

Veterans are facing a lot of mixed emotions. Many may not yet be interested in professional treatment. They’re depending on people around them to ask about their experiences and point to where even the smallest interaction may have created a positive impact. Regardless of where a Veteran finds support, whenever someone’s well-being is injured, early intervention is key.

I lost a longtime friend in April to suicide. During his memorial in an aircraft hangar in California, we recalled, “he led his life by design, not default.” Most of us never saw it coming. A Marine with combat deployments, he was always motivated, always moving forward. While transferring the Marine Corps leadership principles to the civilian world, he embodied an entrepreneur’s drive.

Looking back, he needed more of us to recognize how a Marine’s intensity may require recalibration for the boardroom. Failure is acceptable. We can own mistakes as opportunities to learn. When we’re lost, we can ask for help in finding purpose again.

For Veterans, their time in uniform has ended, but their experiences impact them for life. Whether or not they saw combat, military service is a life-bonding moment. Veterans carry their experiences through life’s big events. You can help by being ready to respond to a crisis but also work to prevent one. Remember, talking to somebody about suicide does not make somebody want to die by suicide.

You can thank a Veteran today by offering an open ear. You can promote positive outcomes by seeking to understand their needs. Let them know that, not only are you there, VA is also standing ready to offer individual counseling, along with assistance in housing, education and employment. Encourage Veterans to engage in their communities or volunteer at their local VA facility where they are surrounded by Veterans who share similar experiences.

Whenever you see a Veteran navigating a transition in their life, reach out. Listen to the young Veteran who is becoming a student or parent or buying a first home, or the retiree who may need help realizing independence and fulfillment after decades of service and deployments. Be there. Seek to understand their purpose in life. With purpose, we will each lead a meaningful life.

VA will always remember those lost and injured on 9/11 and all who responded.

Thank you for your service to our Veterans.

Suicide is preventable. If you know a Veteran in crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255, or chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net/chat.


Michael Kilmer, Director, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, has more than 15 years of VA experience, including various roles in leadership, organizational improvement and multi-facility operations. He earned a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary arts and sciences from University of Washington, Tacoma, and a Master of Social Work from University of Washington, Seattle. He served 15 years in the Coast Guard.

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