PENSACOLA, Fla. — Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, with an average of 20 veterans taking their own lives every day.

To help combat this crisis, Innisfree Hotels has launched its own in-house initiative to train employees who work with veterans or individuals with mental health issues through Fire Watch’s Watch Stander program.

“It’s important to know what veterans sacrifice while serving America, and to understand that many of them do suffer from PTSD. They’ve seen a lot more than many of us have seen and often feel underappreciated,” said Innisfree’s Vice President of Corporate Culture Lusharan Wiley.

“And often once they’re done with the service, just getting back into civilian life can be a challenge as well. So just being there and understanding what they might be feeling will make us a better service for them.”

Fire Watch was formed in 2019 to lead regional efforts to reduce veteran suicide rates. Her Watch Stander program mobilizes community members to be alert to veterans’ issues and refer them to needed support.

Since April, 51% of employees at five Innisfree hotels in Pensacola and Escambia County have participated in the Watch Stander program, which prepares them to help not only veterans, but any guest experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts.

An estimated 100,000 veterans live in Northwest Florida, home to numerous military bases, including Pensacola Air Force Base, NAS Whiting and Eglin AFB.

In September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida Veterans Suicide Prevention Month, reminding Floridians of the state’s continued promise to offer support and resources to veterans dealing with mental health while addressing the growing veteran suicide crisis.

From 2001 to 2018, the number of veterans who commit suicide increased by an average of 47 deaths per year, according to the annual Veterans Suicide Report. According to Fire Watch, 153 veterans died by suicide in Escambia County between 2010 and 2018, a rate of 23.3 suicides per 100,000 veterans.

Fortunately, there are good signs that this is going down, as the adjusted rate for veterans dropped 9.7% from 2018 to 2020. In Escambia County, it dropped to 22.9 over the same time period.

Society plays a key role in prevention

Lauren Anzaldo, the suicide prevention coordinator for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health System, provides training on how to respond to people who are showing signs of suicidal thoughts.

Several factors can lead to veterans dying by suicide, such as access to health care, exposure to trauma, mental health issues, homelessness, financial hardship and family stress, she said.

Anzaldo instructs listeners to look for signs, which can range from veterans talking about death or dying, changes in behavior, changes in sleep, feeling that life is not worth living, giving up possessions, anger, irritability or hopelessness.

Despite​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​all, the community, to provide help and support where there are resources, and places like Innisfree Hotels are one of the areas in the communities that can help.

Asking for help is the very first step in combating veteran suicide, and the recent decline in veteran suicides proves that it’s possible to go further to help veterans and build communities so they feel safe and purposeful, Anzaldo said.

“When I talk about suicide and mental health crises, I couldn’t come to work every day and continue to work if I didn’t see that suicide is preventable. And there are anchors of hope,” Ansaldo said. “So the work that I’m doing is extremely important, and even though it can be very difficult, it’s meaningful and important. And I see progress in working with the community, through trainings, that we’re doing, by the community stepping up and getting involved and taking ownership of this problem. So there’s hope.”

Lori Milkeris, director of UWF’s Military and Veterans Resource Center, found a note from her father after he died in 2015. It chronicled her father’s struggle to find purpose after retiring from the Air Force in the late 70s.

All her life, Milkeris thought her father was the strongest man she had ever met. He had a mind of steel that allowed him to do anything he set his mind to.

After reading this letter, she and her family learned that he also believed in all these things, but didn’t know what to do when he returned to his small town of Shio, New York.

He needed something to help him find his purpose again, and eventually became president of the New York Moose Lodge, a philanthropic group of people who come together and raise funds and donations for their local communities. It also gives men a chance to come together in community, care for each other’s needs and celebrate life together.

Whether it’s people on the street, organizations that help stop veteran suicide, or industries like Innisfree Hotels, Milkeris knows that when someone takes that step to help a veteran, it can save another person’s life.

“You have people who are ready to die for their country. And then they come back with such invisible wounds that they don’t want to live. So that’s a struggle in itself. So I think we’re so heavily loaded with military personnel in that region that it’s important for that region,” Milkeris said. “Because there are so many people there that even if they get out, they stay in this area because it’s beautiful and it feels like home. And so if you’re going to keep them here, then we want to help them stay mentally healthy so they can continue to live here as a positive asset to their community and then to their families and ultimately to themselves.”

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