A message from Damian McCabe, Director of Behavioral Health-Military Affairs, UCHealth

by | Aug 1, 2022 | Uncategorized

As I transitioned from active military service to retirement, I went on the same journey as many Veterans. A journey of reflection, transformation, and uncertainty.  I had the opportunity to reflect on the 24 years that passed since my commissioning date.   The military had given me many great opportunities to learn, be challenged, and grow.  Now, I needed to consider how I would apply the lessons I had learned, the challenges I overcame, and the endurance and perseverance I had acquired through service to my new identity as a Veteran.   I had earned this title – Veteran – and my family had too.  I had lost count of the number of times I was called away from home and the many family celebrations I missed as part of my service – of our service.  I accept that I owe a debt to my family and friends for supporting me in my service to the oath I took as an American.   

That debt, and immense sense of gratitude for all that I had been given and earned, led me to my post- military career with UCHealth.  My time in service and experience with all branches of the military gave me a passion for one particular topic where I knew I could directly transfer my skills.   That topic was Veteran suicide and the stigma that prevents people from seeking help. 

The community where we chose to make our home after my exit from the military has one of the most depressing track records in Veterans health and wellness.  El Paso County leads the State of Colorado in the rate of suicide amongst our Veterans and has done so for many years.  Our county often places in the top ten of all U.S. counties for rates of Veteran suicide.  As I met community members in my new role I was reassured, time and time again, of the concern and commitment throughout the community for our Veterans, their families, and the wider community at large.  El Paso County is a proud military community and has been for more than 80 years.  The compelling Veteran suicide rates did nothing to reflect the local ethos and military history of El Paso County. 

Early in 2021, this Veteran learned of an initiative in the Colorado legislature to attack the issue of Veteran suicide in El Paso County.   El Paso County had experience in working with suicide within the community. In 2016, while I completed my last deployment to Afghanistan, a local school, the school my children attended, experienced a terrifying episode of teen suicide.  Multiple deaths in quick succession galvanized the community to learn more and do more about this alarming public health problem.  I knew that given the right collaborators, a thoughtful plan to understand and attack the root causes, and enough funding to support the effort, El Paso County could apply that same commitment to the suicide rate in our Veterans.  

With the help of key community agencies supporting Veterans and their families, and overall community health and wellness, UCHealth gave me the space to explore how we could accomplish this.   After a process of submitting requests to the newly funded legislative initiative, UCHealth was awarded a grant to develop and lead the effort in El Paso County.  Our key partners, too many to mention here, included Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, NAMI Colorado Springs, the Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic at UCCS, the El Paso County Public Health Department and the Coroner’s office, and law enforcement agencies across the county. Health care providers and many others came together to support this idea and to increase their capacity to understand and serve the needs of El Paso County Veterans.   The gateway to those services, and to all of that support, is NEXT CHAPTER.

As my personal journey through military service progressed, I learned that every day would bring me a new opportunity, a chance to be challenged, opportunity to be knocked down, and opportunity to get back up. I learned from adversity to be more capable and resilient in addressing challenges and concerns.   Sounds like an easy formula, right?   No so much.  At times those challenges would go on for months and would test my fortitude more than I ever could have imagined.  The challenges would involve the death of friends, the loss of key relationships, additional sacrifice of family time and experiences, follow-on deployments, and the fear of not coming home.  There were times when I didn’t feel like getting back up and times when I was just too tired from trying.  I wanted to pop smoke and leave!  But I didn’t.  Somehow, someway, all around me, were brothers and sisters in arms, encouraging me, mentoring me, and providing a scaffold for me to climb back up on.  This support reinforced my commitment to serve others and my respect for my oath.  I hoped those experiences would not end when I retired.  NEXT CHAPTER harnesses that feeling and that knowledge.  NEXT CHAPTER is about our community rising together to provide that same support and scaffolding.  NEXT CHAPTER is about advocacy and encouragement. It is about community members lending their time, compassion, and experience to serve all those who have served and continue to serve us.

None of us are immune to the challenges life brings.  Many of us have endured and learned through these situationally stressful events in life.  While we endured adversity and events that were hard at the time, we persevered and turned that next page.  Many Veterans have written their next chapters, coming out of a time in our lives that was difficult.  Veterans and their families face the same types of crises. But now, the support and encouragement is not only different, it’s often not there for them.  

During challenging times, some consider a fatal solution to a situational problem or crisis. What we know is that in a time of crisis, where an individual is at risk for suicide, if we can prevent immediate access to lethal means, we can prevent the loss of a Veteran or family member.   Better yet, if we can get upstream of the most frequent life crisis events, (e.g., relationship problems, financial problems, chronic illness), that often result in Veterans feeling hopeless and helpless about getting through to their next chapter, we can make a real difference in the health and wellness of the entire Veteran family system.  Not just preventing suicide or other catastrophic losses, but also building a more resilient and capable Veteran who, in turn, can continue their service to others to regain that same mission, purpose, and identity in which they once thrived.

Military life and life as a Veteran is reserved for a small percentage of our overall population. Veterans have served in a close-knit community, a culture unique in the American experience.  Regardless of service period, in any of the conflicts spanning the past 80 years, Veterans have had a shared identity, a shared mission, and a shared sense of purpose.  Those things changed for us as a result of our transition from military service, and it changed for our families too.  Many Veterans have not navigated this transition well.  Others have stayed so busy with life and work that they only realize it’s a challenge when they finally retire.  But for all Veterans, and their family members, transition can present unfinished business that can make a crisis in life more difficult to work through. 

Next Chapter is building an evolving network of support for our Veterans and their families.  And we are doing this with no out-of-pocket costs to our Veterans.  We are inclusive of all Veterans, no matter the era of service, or the type of discharge you received from service.   If you are Veteran, or family member of a Veteran, living in El Paso County, and in need of support, call Next Chapter or visit nextchapterco.org and request services.  We are Veterans and Veteran family members helping our community recognize and support one another in a time of need.

For me, this mission is both personal and professional.  The stigma of seeking help has taken too many of our Veteran brothers and sisters.  We are at a crossroads, a crucial moment in El Paso County where we can make a difference.  If you are a Veteran and want to continue your service to others, contact us and see how your fellow Veterans can benefit from your talents and time.  We, at UCHealth and Next Chapter, look forward to partnering with individuals and organizations in El Paso County as we support our Veterans and their families. We’re in this together to save lives!