By: (Courtesy of Jake Fernandez)
Jake Fernandez of Union, New Jersey patrols Kandahar province during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2012: Fernandez volunteers and speaks publicly to help others adjust to returning home after deployment.

New Jersey veterans struggle with a variety of mental and physical illnesses, including anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. But veterans don’t always seek help.

Now, nonprofit organizations and state legislatures are stepping up efforts to address veterans’ mental health issues through peer support programs and legislation that supports service members in accessing treatment for PTSD.

“You don’t remember what (it’s) like to be a civilian and kind of go back to what normal people do,” Jake Fernandez, who served as a Green Beret, said of returning home after his first deployment to Afghanistan.

They were there 350,538 veterans live in New Jersey as of September 30, 2019, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. And 184,394 of them were aged 65 or older. But because ex-soldiers like Fernandez live at home both during and after their service, the trauma experienced while serving in the military can continue to affect their lives. In 2021, 519 servicemen committed suicideaccording to the annual report of the US Department of Defense on suicides in the military.

Union’s Fernandez said when he returned from Afghanistan after his first deployment, “it was tough at first.” He said: “Those were my dark days when I first came back because you come back and things change, people change. You were gone for nine months, but everyone else was living their lives. … And you just weren’t there. It was necessary to simply survive. You turn into a kind of animal, you know, you just survive and do it all over again, and you don’t die. Wake up. Eat. Don’t die. And you have all these survival instincts that … are on high now because you’re so used to surviving, and then you come home and you feel like nobody cares, nobody has a clue what I’ve done.”

Fernandez said that after his second and third deployment, he knew what to expect when he returned home and was able to stick to a routine.

Homecoming, problems

Feeling helpless and useless is one of the biggest challenges veterans face after returning home, according to Michael Ball, president New Jersey Veterans Network. The volunteer-run nonprofit is a mobile outreach program dedicated to helping veterans and their families live better lives, Ball said. The organization’s mission is to create a system of community veteran connections to identify veterans and connect them with resources and solutions.

Credit: (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
File photo: A US soldier looks through the scope of his weapon during a night patrol in Khost province, Afghanistan, through night vision equipment.

“In the next few months, we’re going to start a project called the Uniform Heroes Project, where veterans (and) active first responders across the state will have a peer support program where veterans or first responders will go and help those , who are in need by going to their homes and helping them, watching and getting them out of there,” Ball said. “And just taking them under your wing to help them through a crisis or any other bad situations and put them in a better place.”

“Don’t go at it alone. It’s real. And the difficulties you are going through are real. But there is help and there is hope.” — Mark Graham, National Call Center for Behavioral Health, Rutgers University

The suicide rate among service members has been gradually increasing since 2011, although the rate was lower in 2021 than in 2020, according to the Defense Department’s annual report. The report also notes that in 2020, 202 members of military families committed suicide. According to the report, the most common method of suicide for both service members and military families is by firearm.

The New Jersey Veterans Network counters feelings of sadness and hopelessness by giving veterans in crisis a purpose again, showing them they are part of a unit and giving them a new mission to help others, according to Ball.

“Helping others will help you. And this is our formula,” Ball said. “And we ask people that we help one thing – that they pay in advance. Just help someone else. And it seems to have really taken off and we’ve been very lucky. In our first year, we saved a dozen lives with the help of our peer support teachers,” he said.

Other services available

Additional programs for veterans include Vets4Warriors, a national program housed at the National Behavioral Health Call Center at Rutgers University, and New Jersey Vet2Vet, a program for veterans and service members, according to Mark Graham, retired Army major general and executive director. . call center. Graham is also a director of Vets4Warriors.

“The most important thing is to get help,” Graham said. “Don’t go at it alone. It’s real. And the difficulties you are going through are real. But there is help and there is hope,” he said.

Earlier this week, lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee approved two bills to address mental health issues related to veterans.

Legislation in development

The bill sponsored by Sen. Anthony Book (R-Morris), would require the Adjutant General of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to establish a program to assist veterans in accessing evaluation and treatment for PTSD, general brain injury, or traumatic diagnosis of brain injury associated with military service.

“It’s nice on Veterans Day when people come out, come to celebrations, thank veterans for their service. But it doesn’t have to end on this day,” Buka said. “People need to remember that there are too many veterans who are homeless, too many veterans who are hungry, and still too many veterans who need services to address the emotional and physical scars of the physical scars of war. And that’s why it’s important not only on Veterans Day, but also after Veterans Day. Every day after Veterans Day. And especially for us as legislators, we have to recognize that these problems exist. That is what this bill does. It helps bring it to the fore.”

“Even after returning home, many veterans continue to fight mental and emotional battles that affect their lives, homes and communities.” — Senator Nia Gill

Under another billsponsored by Sens. Nia Gill (D-Essex) and Jean Stanfield (R-Atlantic), veterans’ benefits would be excluded from a person’s income when calculating the financial liability for mental health care.

“As we celebrate Veterans Day to fully honor those who have defended our nation, we must ensure that ensuring veterans’ mental health is at the forefront of our public policy,” Gill said in a statement. “Even after returning home, many veterans continue to fight mental and emotional battles that affect their lives, homes and communities. Eliminating veterans’ caregiving benefits will allow those who have served to receive the mental health care they need and deserve.”

Fernandez now volunteers and speaks publicly to help other people. “I went through it,” he said. “I could talk to you about anything because I’ve been there and done that. I lived through it. And I’m going to teach you how to get through it yourself. There is a way out.”

The phone number for Vet2Vet of New Jersey is 1-866-838-7654. Vets4Warriors Phone: 1-855-838-8255.

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