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National leader of AMVETS from Boardman appeals to Congress for help

Staff report

WASHINGTON — Jan Brown of Boardman, AMVETS first female national commander, told members of Congress about failures in addressing veterans’ mental health and suicides, and urged money be spent on alternative programs.

Brown said she spoke to the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee last week, and felt her message was well-received.

“This was my one opportunity to tell Congress what I thought and have it on record. A couple of them came up and actually thanked me,” said Brown. “The questions and comments I got apparently hit home.”

Veteran service organizations testify annually before both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, notifying Congress of their veteran-related priorities.

These organizations urged action to prevent more suicide deaths, to care for increasing veterans ill and dying of toxic exposure and traumatic brain injuries, and to provide equal care for a growing number of women veterans.

AMVETS last summer elected Brown, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant, to serve as the organization’s 2019-2020 national commander.

She believes in the effectiveness of alternative and complimentary programs, and said the current system for supporting veterans’ mental health is “broken.”

“The VA (Veterans Administration) does a lot of things really, really well, but mental health is not one of them. It works for less than one-third of the people who use it,” said Brown. “The VA needs to look outside their box as to how to treat veterans as far as mental health goes.”

AMVETS recommends Congress funnel any and all increases in VA’s mental health budget to “alternative, novel and non-pharmacological approaches.” Brown recommended classes such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi — an ancient Chinese martial art that is offered at Brown’s home AMVETS post in Struthers, but was cut at the VA clinic in Youngstown due to budget constraints.

“I see these people gain confidence and connect with other people doing this ancient Chinese art,” said Brown, who said it is the connection with others that matters.

She said yoga works best for her when she needs to de-stress. “I don’t do it well, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help me,” said Brown.

SAVE A WARRIOR

Every year AMVETS commanders take on a veteran-related project in an effort to bring awareness to certain issues. This year, Brown’s focus is “Save a Warrior,” an organization that provides counseling services in the fields of mental health and wellness, suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress to veterans, military personnel, police, firefighters and other first responders.

She said peer to peer programs are important for improving mental health. The “Save a Warrior” program based out of New Albany is staffed by wounded warriors and first responders — who have been through similar experiences as the veterans and first responders who enter the program.

“Typically when you go to a mental health professional, they’re not a wounded warrior. They’ve not experienced what you’ve experienced,” she explained.

Brown said the free “Save a Warrior” and programs like it use peers to help people dig into the roots of their trauma. “Save a Warrior” also has meditation and service components, which allow participants to get away from their issues and focus on the issues of the often less fortunate.

Also, the AMVETS HEAL team — or healthcare, evaluation, advocacy and legislation — has developed veterans’ suicide prevention training, which it is teaching to first responders and veterans’ groups. The training, which details how to recognize the signs and how to talk to people who may be considering harming themselves, is also available online, at the AMVETS website, amvets.org.

“I encourage everybody to take it, not just veterans.” said Brown.

BILLIONS SPENT

Brown said the main message she wanted Congress to understand is that current programs are not necessarily working, despite the large amount of money put into them.

“If this is not working, why do we keep doing it?” she asked.

In her remarks to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Brown said: “If we had spent $9 billion this year showing veterans how to live lives worth living, our veterans would be in a lot better position. Instead, we have built a hard to manage mental health conglomerate, with associations and unions who put their needs first.

“We need to end the madness. The death toll is the only number that matters. Regardless of the billions spent, our suicide numbers have not budged an inch. Why are we so scared to try something dramatically different? Not a hospital-centered system focused on symptomology, rather creating a substantial investment in wellness, training, and helping veterans live lives worth living, the real and only antidote to suicide.”

Contributors: Staff writers Allie Vugrincic and Thomas Wills

news@tribtoday.com

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