Addressing Veterans’ Silent Struggles

Veterans Appreciation Day in Dickinson went beyond the usual patriotic show of respect Saturday as two of its speakers addressed a difficult topic that has proven to be a growing problem nationwide.

Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker and Sandra Horsman, director of the VA Black Hills Health Care System in Sturgis, S.D., each used their platform during the inaugural services at Memorial Park to talk about the growing rate of veteran suicides and mental health issues.

“I assume you’ve seen the statistics of veteran suicides that report 20 heroes are lost a day,” Horsman said. “Even one is too many.”

Decker, a retired U.S. Army veteran who was elected as city commission president in June, said one of his goals is to have a mental health clinic built in Dickinson.

He said better mental health care is needed not only for everyday citizens, but can play a pivotal role in the lives of many military veterans, even if most people don’t realize it.

“We’re working to not only help in the physical treatment, but the mental aspect, which is so important for so many veterans out there so they can get the treatment that is necessary,” Decker said.

On a day when 180 more veterans’ names were added to the Stark County Veterans Memorial, Decker said he’s proud that people have a visual reminder of the sacrifices so many have made.

However, he said there’s often a cost associated with that sacrifice.

“Sometimes we heal the body but we don’t heal the mind,” he said. “And I think that’s important. We are working diligently to get a mental health unit here. We’re trying to work with some state and federal agencies to bring that here so we can truly help the veterans who are not only on that wall, but the future veterans that are coming back from this conflict that has now been going on for a long time.”

Horsman said the Black Hills VA system serves a four-state area that stretches from southwest North Dakota all the way to Scottsbluff, Neb., eastern Wyoming and central South Dakota.

She said because many veterans struggle to reach their clinic, they’ve been providing telehealth services of psychiatrists and psychologists.

“What we’re finding is a lot of the younger veterans are very comfortable with that medium,” she said. “For some, it adds an additional kind of layer of protection for them as they get comfortable talking about some very difficult times in their lives.”

September is designated as Suicide Prevention Month.

Decker said he has actively worked to help stem depression and suicide among veterans since his service days simply by picking up the phone and calling veterans he either served with or knows.

He implored all veterans to do the same.

“I just ask them how they are and then I listen,” Decker said. “Because sometimes people are dealing with demons that nobody else knows about. So it’s important to let them know somebody cares. Some days they may just be sitting by themselves and it’s that phone call that changes them.”

Horsman said veterans who are struggling with depression, substance abuse problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental health issue should call Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK.

“This is a struggle that no veteran should have to shoulder alone,” she said. “We need to remind them that help is just a phone call away.”

Reaching out to veterans came come in many ways, too.

Wayne Hutchens, chaplain of the American Legion Matthew Brew Post 3 Riders, said he and his wife — a U.S. Marine Corps veteran — make it a point to thank all veterans they meet for their service. He said they will ask someone if they are a veteran, respectfully ask if they can shake their hand and then thank them.

“To every veteran here who has not heard these words,” Hutchens said, his voice breaking, “from my heart and my respect, welcome home and thank you for serving.”