With suicides way up, Treasure Valley group works to aid veterans

Figures show that more than 20 former military members take their lives each day, a number that Warrior Pointe hopes to drastically reduce.

awebb@idahostatesman.comApril 13, 2014 

  • WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT SUICIDE

    If someone you know is in emotional crisis:

    Mental health experts urge you to call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

    Warning signs to watch for:

    • Talking about wanting to die.

    • Looking for a way to kill oneself.

    • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

    • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

    • Talking about being a burden to others.

    • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.

    • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.

    • Sleeping too little or too much.

    • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

    • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

    • Extreme mood swings.

    Other things you can do to help:

    • Do not leave the person alone.

    • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.

    • Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.

    • Be nonjudgmental. Don't debate or lecture on the value of life.

    • Don't act shocked. This will put distance between you.

    • Don't be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.

    • Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.

    • Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.

    • Get help by calling the hotline or visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

    Source: Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  • WARRIOR POINTE MEETINGS

    The group meets at 6 p.m. every Monday at the Assembly of God, 31 S. Midland Blvd. in Nampa. For more information, call Pacheco: 570-1207.

    Fundraiser raffle

    Warrior Pointe is raffling off an AR-15 rifle autographed by Marine sniper Chuck Mawhinney. Raffle tickets are on sale for $10 until May 12. Get them online at shop.templarexchange.com or at Templar Exchange, 985 S. Progress Ave. in Meridian, 557-8367. All proceeds will go to Warrior Pointe.

  • ANNA WEBB

    Anna Webb is a Boise native who writes stories about Treasure Valley communities and a column on local nonprofits.

In the summer of 2012, U.S. Army veteran Reed Pacheco had his suicide all planned out.

He has four children. He didn't want to kill himself in the same house where they live. Finding an alternate place wouldn't be hard, he figured.

"We're in the land of open space and wilderness," Pacheco said.

Something else happened instead.

"I truly believe it was God," he said.

He picked up paper and a pen, not his gun. He wrote down a list of problems veterans face when they come home from military service.

"We call them our demons," he said. "Insomnia, drinking, broken relationships, remorse, guilt, unemployment, navigating the VA, suicide."

He picked up the phone and called his friends - fellow veterans.

"We started just meeting to support one another. Getting our brothers and sisters together," he said. "War fighters supporting war fighters."

Warrior Pointe, the group he started, meets every Monday at the Assembly of God church in Nampa. It welcomes veterans of all ages, from all branches of the service, all faiths and all political persuasions.

Between 10 and 30 veterans show up on a typical night. The oldest among them fought in Korea. The youngest are back from Afghanistan. There are no membership dues.

"You paid your dues when you served your country," said Pacheco, 40.

Meetings are low-key. They begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short prayer. Sometimes they just consist of simple conversation, nothing too heavy.

A loose format seems to work for everyone.

"Over time, these guys get to know each other. They begin to share things about themselves," Pacheco said.

A DEEP PROBLEM

He and the others want Warrior Pointe to be a never-ending network that exists outside official channels, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, to connect veterans to mental health resources in the community and to each other.

An average of 22 veterans kill themselves each day, according to data released this year. And Pacheco said the number is probably even higher.

The 22 figure is "with only 20 states reporting. And it doesn't count the guys who drive off cliffs or take drug overdoses that look like accidents," he said.

According to the Idaho Veteran Suicide Fact Sheet from the VA, 748 Idaho veterans killed themselves between 2000 and 2010.

"Suicide isn't the problem. It's the end result of having so much on your plate," Pacheco said.

Warrior Pointe has grown through word of mouth and social media. The group has 153 chapters in several states, and Pacheco wants to establish a chapter in all 50 states by 2015.

The group complements a broader effort to illuminate the military suicide issue.

A national group of veterans recently went to Washington, D.C., to push lawmakers to take steps to slow the growing rate.

The Boise VA has a suicide prevention coordinator on staff. The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline has a designated line for veterans. And Warrior Pointe recently honored Tori Shockey, a caseworker for veterans and their families in Raul Labrador's office, for her work to support veterans in crisis and help them access benefits.

IN NEED OF A MISSION

Pacheco lives in Nampa. His family's military service dates back to the American Revolution, he said. He enlisted in the Army in 1991 and served in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. He came back to the U.S. with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He broke his neck and back in a bad fall during his military service and today walks with a cane.

He still goes to the VA in Boise for counseling. He's also been invited to speak to groups there about Warrior Pointe.

Pacheco believes the group, which is in the process of getting its nonprofit status, has prevented suicides since it began in 2012. It's not uncommon for him to get "crazy text messages" from a veteran in distress.

"Thanks to Warrior Pointe, I can have three guys at his house within 30 minutes," said Pacheco.

One of those men might be Army veteran Joshua Petersen, 31. Like Pacheco, he comes from a military family. His father fought in Afghanistan. Petersen enlisted when he was just 17 and served two tours in Iraq. He injured his back and neck in combat and received hospital treatment for three years after returning to the U.S. in 2008.

Like so many others, Petersen suffers from PTSD. Three of the men he served with killed themselves.

"As calvary scouts we memorize 'Fiddler's Green,' " he said, reciting words from the poem published in the Army Cavalry Journal in 1923:

"And so when man and horse go down

Beneath a saber keen,

Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee

You stop a bullet clean,

And the hostiles come to get your scalp,

Just empty your canteen,

And put your pistol to your head

And go to Fiddler's Green."

After his military service he joined the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, any veterans group he could find. Often, that camaraderie translated into drinking too much - "maybe three times a week. I never once bought my own drink," he said.

The combination of pain medication and drinking took a toll.

"Out of the military, I felt like I had no honor, no face," he said.

He tried to take his own life: "Luckily, I'm a bad shot."

Petersen met Pacheco and started coming to Warrior Pointe meetings. He has since become one of the group's most active members. He recently returned from a trip to Butte, Mont., to help a fellow veteran who was struggling with his VA paperwork.

Part of the future plans for Warrior Pointe include helping the larger community. Pacheco and Petersen want to see groups of Warrior Pointe veterans volunteering for projects such as Paint the Town, river cleanups and the Idaho Humane Society, and acting as mentors for veterans courts in Ada and Canyon counties.

"Doing things in the community helps us build that brotherhood we had in the military. Making the world a better place is the reason most of us joined the military in the first place," said Petersen.

LONG TRIP TO SOMETHING BETTER

Joashua Salazar, 36, grew up in Nampa. He's among the veterans who credit Warrior Pointe with saving their lives.

Salazar enlisted in the Army when he was 22. Between 2003 and 2008, he spent every other year in battle, in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

He came home in 2009 with PTSD. A tattoo on his arm with 23 crosses marks the men he served with who didn't return.

"I was messed up," said Salazar.

He started using drugs and alcohol. He was having flashbacks. He couldn't find a job.

"In the Army, they call infantry the dummies for being willing to go out and get shot at. Also, when you get out, you can maybe be a security guard. Other than that, no skills convert over," Salazar said.

Veterans Day is not one of celebration for Salazar. Instead, it stirs memories of a battle he experienced in 2007 near that time of year. Many friends died.

His lowest post-military point came around Veterans Day in Nampa in 2009. He picked up his pistol and a knife and got on his bike.

"I was looking for the first patrol car I saw. I was hoping for a suicide-by-cop," said Salazar.

He saw no patrol cars.

"That's why I'm still here," he said.

He pulled into a gas station. With enough change in his pocket to call his mom on the pay phone, he talked to her and made it through the night.

"From there it's been a long process," Salazar said.

He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault after a fight with a neighbor and spent a year in prison. He got out in 2011 and started attending PTSD group therapy at the VA. That's where he met Pacheco, who convinced him to come to a Warrior Pointe meeting.

Salazar, who is married with two small children, found comfort at Warrior Pointe that was hard to find elsewhere. He doesn't sugarcoat his story. He's still working on his issues.

He once came to a Warrior Pointe meeting just minutes after driving 125 mph on the freeway, contemplating flipping his car. As recently as a month and a half ago he called the suicide prevention hotline, "something I had never done," he said.

He also called Warrior Pointe. After that, a member of the group started calling Salazar regularly. Salazar couldn't always face the calls. He missed Warrior Pointe meetings, too, until the night he showed up and found members of the group getting ready to drive to his neighborhood, find his house and knock down his door to get to him if they had to.

"Having that acceptance, I thought, somebody needs me, not just my wife and kids," said Salazar.

"It's belonging to something again. ... The guys in Vietnam were going through tunnels. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we were going through little mud huts. It was the same thing. We can all be telling our story at the same time, trading sentences."

Salazar is part of a Warrior Pointe offshoot, a group of veterans meeting for coffee every Wednesday at the Flying M in Nampa in addition to the Monday meetings. He doesn't have close friends outside the military. He's come to rely on Mondays and Wednesdays to anchor his week.

He got some good news recently. He was just accepted at Northwest Nazarene University. He wants to study graphic design and has been filling out his paperwork.

"I've come from being a grunt, or a 'ground pounder,' to being on the way to college," said Salazar.

He said he sometimes looks at the tattoo on his arm to remember his blessings, since the men represented by those crosses don't have his opportunities.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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