Gov. Polis visits Mt. Carmel in Colorado Springs to discuss importance of mental health services, suicide prevention for military veterans
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Reducing the suicide rate among military veterans is why Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was in town Wednesday to talk with one of the leading providers of supportive services for veterans.
The Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center hosted a meeting that included other community partners that are trying to reduce veteran suicides by eliminating some of the struggles they face -- including homelessness, unemployment and mental health issues.
Mt. Carmel officials -- currently with an office in the city, as well as in Pueblo and Trinidad -- eventually want to expand their services across the state, because many veterans believe that more services are needed or that available services aren't adequately publicized.
Polis said that he will try to help Mt. Carmel and other veteran service providers by possibly making more state funding available.
"We can expand deadlines, reduce paperwork and make additional initiatives and investments that can make an even bigger difference," the governor explained.
Bob McLaughlin, himself a veteran and executive director of Mt. Carmel, sees increasing the number of mental health services and providing more available, affordable housing as the top priorities.
"As long as somebody is down-and-out and no one cares, they're not going to get better," he explained. "If someone has services like we provide here -- a place to stay, feel good about themselves and get upward mobility -- we've got about a 98% rate of success with veterans in need."
Data provided by the El Paso County Coroner's Office for 2010 found a 10% increase in suicides among active-duty and veteran military personnel, which represent nearly a third of all suicides in the county.
"(But) I think we're lowering that number," McLaughlin said. "As of the first of this year, we had 250 registered homeless veterans. There's probably just as many whom we don't know about."
Complicating the matter, he said, is that many veterans are reluctant to ask for help.
Lee Deloria, 45, once fit that profile; he retired in 2016 after 20 years of Army service but struggled to cope with post traumatic stress disorder upon returning home.
"I felt that I was alone, surrounded by people who didn't understand what I've been through, what I've seen and what I continue to go through," he said. "I was anxious and depressed. I hated going out in public, I didn't like wide-open spaces. I just stayed in my room when I wasn't at work."
Life got worse when Deloria and his first wife divorced in 2018, and that led him to drive to Reno, Nevada -- to visit a friend before contemplating suicide.
"I actually had the gun in my lap," Deloria recalled. "I was ready to go. I'd had enough."
However, his new service dog sensed the despair and stepped in to save his master's life.
"He jumped in front, started licking my face and I put the gun down," he said. I started the truck and took off."
Before returning home to Colorado Springs, Deloria's friend directed him to a service center for veterans in Reno; within a year, he met and married his second wife, Krystal.
"She was the one who encouraged me to go to Mt. Carmel," he said. "We need more places like that. I had five comrades in the Army who took their own lives and didn't make it this far."
Deloria said that he'll never return to normal, remains still unable to work and has difficulty performing even simple tasks.
"It's still just too much for me," he said. "But it helps to share my experience with others. Maybe I can be a counselor someday."
KRDO NewsChannel 13 is partnering with Mt. Carmel for a series of reports called Next Chapter; the reports will highlight the numerous struggles that veterans face after the military.
You can expect to see that special series over the next few months.
For more information about Mt. Carmel's support services, visit: https://www.veteranscenter.org/.