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Pushing for help: Campaign raises awareness about veteran suicides

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a national awareness movement called #22KILL.

Under that initiative, some Spokane residents have embraced a social media campaign called #22Pushups, a challenge to honor veterans and raise awareness about veteran suicide prevention.

Phil Tyler, an Air Force veteran and Spokane business owner, is taking that challenge a bit further. On April 7, Tyler started posting a daily Facebook video of himself doing 22 pushups, and vowed to do so for 22 consecutive days. Each day, he named other people to accept the challenge.

People can do as few as one or two pushups, but Tyler said his hope is to see the social media challenge go viral the same way as the Ice Bucket Challenge did to support amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Veterans might be suffering in silence,” he said. “We’re hoping people visit the #22KILL site and become advocates, maybe donate, or direct a veteran to this site letting them know there is support.”

“If they’re having difficulties, reach out. We owe it to them for their service.”

Tyler sent a #22Pushups challenge to retired Air Force Col. Brian Newberry, now Leadership Spokane executive director. Newberry responded, doing his pushups while reciting the Airman’s Creed. He challenged his son, Mark, a University of Michigan ROTC cadet.

“This effort is trying to raise awareness that seeking help with mental health is important,” Newberry said. “If you’re a veteran and your head hurts, talk to someone, and we will get you help.”

While commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, Newberry saw rising indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

“It really came to a head right after the Iraq War, when many people in the Army came back with PTSD, and then it spread to the other branches,” he said. “I remember this time two years ago talking to my commanders very worried we would have an incident. There were a lot of signals out there.”

Tyler has sent #22Pushups challenges to city council members, congressional candidate Joe Pakootas, Mayor David Condon, and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, among others. Tyler served eight years as an Air Force law enforcement specialist. After 16 years with the county Sheriff’s Office Jail Division, he founded Wisdom in Words for communications and leadership consulting. On Thursday, his 22nd and final day, he challenged first lady Michelle Obama.

When he got the pushup challenge, Tyler said he recalled news stories about veterans in crisis.

“You have Mr. (Craig) Burton who tried suicide by cop,” he said. “There’s a story behind that behavior; he was suffering PTSD. Just in the Pacific Northwest, there has been four or five similar incidents.”

“Many times, (veterans) think of it as a negative stereotype to admit they have some kind of weakness,” Tyler added. “They are protecting our Constitution and freedom, so there is an image that they must be strong, but there is more depth to them.”

Last May, police responded to Craig Burton’s Spokane home. Burton fired his gun multiple times and was shot once by police after refusing to drop his gun. His attorney argued during a trial that Burton was firing in the air to try to commit suicide by cop.

More than 350,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have sought help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for PTSD. The number of veterans receiving specialized mental health treatment from VA services has risen each year, from over 900,000 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1.6 million in fiscal year 2015.

For veterans and families in crisis, a 24-hour national hotline is set up at (800) 273-8255. Other resources are available locally, but sometimes it’s difficult to reach out, said Kitara Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran in Spokane who sent the pushups challenge to Tyler.

“When you have that dark cloud, you don’t think about anything else,” said Johnson, 38. “I didn’t know that 22 veterans a day kill themselves. It was so real to me because I was in that situation, when I was contemplating it. I thought about walking into traffic.”

Johnson said she suffered PTSD and military sexual trauma, but reaching out to friends and counseling have helped. “It was hard to tell friends but I realized, it’s more important to speak out. So many veterans don’t, and I think that’s why many are killing themselves.”

She did over two years of cognitive behavioral therapy and still uses veteran therapy services.

“If I could tell any vets to talk to someone, I’d say do so.”

Bret Bowers, a VA spokesman, said any VA-enrolled veteran can get behavioral health services, and those who do so show better outcomes. Between 2000-10, suicide rates for veterans using VA care decreased, while rates increased for veterans who hadn’t sought that help.


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