Volunteers and local organizations convened with dozens of area veterans Thursday for a free mental health event at National Park College.
The Veterans Mini-Mental Health Summit of the Ouachitas was held in the Frederick M. Dierks Center for Nursing and Health Sciences with presentations in the Dr. Martin Eisele Auditorium. More than 20 vendors were present, and more than 20 organizations sent social workers to the event.
"I think it has been really informative," said Nathan Looper, veteran affairs coordinator for the college. "It has gotten us a lot of information on the networking that is available, assistance that I did not know we had and that I can reach out to people now for different areas where we talk about homelessness and suicide. There's so many different people that are willing to help that I had no clue."
Volunteers with the Veterans Community Partnership of the Ouachitas planned the Summit with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects. Susie Reece, violence prevention specialist with CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs and executive director of Suicide Prevention Allies, shared her experience losing her father to suicide.
Reece said she remembered her father, 1st Sgt. David Reynolds, riding the first horse in former President Bill Clinton's inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. She thought so much of her father she believed the parade was for him at her young age. Reynolds was in charge of placing flags at graves in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
"He had immense respect for his country and, more than that, he truly had a heart for service for people that he never met before," Reece said.
Reece explained her experiences with her abusive stepmother and detailed a particularly violent incident.
"She grabbed me by my hair and pulled my hair, pulling the rest of my body up the stairs and then she kicked me down the stairs," Reece said. "Not one time, not two times, but over and over again until I couldn't see. I completely blacked out."
Her stepmother convinced her father to leave the military and to move to a different city, but then she began divorce proceedings against him. It was not until the divorce was underway Reece told her father what her stepmother had done.
"Something broke inside him, because I saw it," Reece said. "I physically witnessed his face change. I physically witnessed that last straw. I saw it."
Reece later stayed overnight with a major's daughter. Reynolds killed Reece's stepmother and himself the same night.
"He ended up becoming one of those white markers that he had respected for so many years," Reece said. "Only, when you die from suicide, it is very different. When you die from suicide, you get erased, because we are not allowed to do that -- we are not allowed to hurt. We are not allowed to be in pain.
"We are not allowed to not be perfection, and I did not understand that because I saw him as perfection. He was the perfect father."
Reece moved to Arkansas to live with her grandparents, but she still saw her father in the news.
"The things that were written about him made him look like a monster," Reece said. "It erased every good thing he had ever done. It erased all of the love everyone had for him. It had so many things that were not true. He was not what she said he was."
Reece said her father left a message for her in a note. He said, "Susie, hopefully someone will listen to you. They won't listen to me."
"This is why I am here," Reece said. "This is why I do what I do. This man gave me the hardest role. I take it because he was amazing and people die every day from suicide. We have to start talking about it and we have to listen.
"The best way to prevent suicide is to talk about the issues. Tell someone if you are struggling. Find someone you trust. I wish my dad had done that, but I can do this for him."
Veteran Chris Short, with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Little Rock, spoke earlier in the day about PTSD, homelessness and the court system for veterans. Amy Thomason, a volunteer for the Veterans Community Partnership and community liaison with Arkansas Hospice, said chaplains and social workers were impressed with the summit's discussions about PTSD. Reece participated in a panel discussion at the end of the event about veteran suicide prevention.
"It happens and it doesn't discriminate," said Kimberly Copeland, with Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. "It is not just one certain class of people it happens to. It is not one certain race of people it happens to or one certain gender. It can happen to anybody."
Copeland said talking about mental health and suicide is the first step in addressing the issues.
"We have to work on PTSD, substance abuse and all of the things we have talked about today, because all of those things together increase your risk of suicide and increase the reasons people attempt suicide," Crutchfield said. "It is just talking about it and letting people know it is OK. You do not have to be scared and you do not have to be alone."
David Elmore, a veteran of the Marine Corps and Purple Heart recipient from his time in Vietnam, led the Pledge of Allegiance to open the event. He later shared his own experiences coping with PTSD.
"I just looked at it as we were angry veterans and we had anger issues," Elmore said. "Finally, I accepted that I had that diagnosis."
Elmore said the Rhythm Warriors Music Project in Hot Springs seeks to provide musical instruction for veterans and public service personnel. He said the group wants to expand the mission throughout the country.
"Musicians donate their time and help veterans," Elmore said. "A lot of these musicians are veterans."
"Dr. (Irving) Kuo of the VA in Little Rock was very pleased and we all look forward to our next Summit," Thomason said.
Looper said he received a positive response from veteran students with the conference on campus. The college has hosted a number of mental health and suicide prevention events.
"I work with student services, so it is kind of raising their awareness and hopefully, with specifically veterans, helping them realize we are an important part of the campus," Looper said. "I don't think, in the past, many college campuses really looked at it that way."
Calls can be made to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, for free 24 hours every day. An alternate line is available for anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing at 800-799-4889. A chat option is available online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Trained crisis counselors are available for free 24 hours every day at the Crisis Text Line by texting ARK to 741741. Messages can also be sent to the Crisis Text Line account on Facebook.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time at 800-950-6264. The HelpLine can also be reached through email at [email protected].
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Helpline is available 24 hours every day at 800-662-4357 for referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations. Service is available in both English and Spanish. All calls are confidential.Local on 10/30/2017