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First Responder Suicides: Are We Losing the War?

First Responder Suicides: Are We Losing the War?

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Firefighter, Marine & Iraq Veteran John Preston says, 'No Way!'

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force

Note: This article was originally published on In Military.

Since the late 2000s, when the mental toll of the Global War on Terror started to become apparent, military veterans’ suicides have commanded national headlines.

The most common number was the now infamous 22 – the number of daily veteran suicides in the United States. Since then, caregivers have a much better handle on Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as indicators of veterans who may be most at risk.

In recent news, an increasing number of suicides at Veterans Affairs facilities have prompted a bipartisan call to arms.

Yet while the nation and the veteran community both focus on awareness and action in combating veteran suicides, another group is quietly struggling with its own suicide epidemic: first responders.

According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than from shootings, traffic accidents and fires combined. In addition, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA) estimates that only 40% of firefighter suicides are reported. This makes it likely that first responder suicides are much higher than previously thought.

Singer/Songwriter, Marine and Iraq Veteran John Preston is at the Heart of the Fight

I first met John Preston in 2015; we move in and out of the same veteran communities and our causes often cross paths. In fact, it was our joint passion for lowering the number of veteran suicides that brought us together.

Then the unthinkable happened.

While on tour in 2016, and about to go on stage in Sacramento, John got a call informing him that his brother Mike, also a Marine veteran and a police officer, had committed suicide.

That tragic call was captured in the video below and was the impetus behind John’s song Superman Falls:

There is footage in this video of not only the evening of, but the exact moment I found out my brother had taken his own life. Earlier that day, as I drove to a show I was about to play, I had come to the decision that it would be my last show. I was done playing music moving forward. But then, after that terrible phone call, fate intervened and set my life on a very different course. There is also footage in this video of my brothers funeral: police and fire vehicles lining the streets for miles leading us from the church back to the funeral home, which would be Mike’s last ride to his final resting place. The “last call” on the dispatch sent me into tears when it was given and still does today. Similar to the determination that came over me when I found out Mike was gone, on this day I felt unstoppable in my rediscovered passion for my music and my cause.The rest of this video shows a small piece of the dedication I have to be where we are today. I intend to motivate others to take charge of their own life and look their fears and loss in the eyes as we walk forward past them. I swore the world would know about us and our cause, and this year #supermanfalls started in the Digital Radio Tracker top 200 in the world and climbing. Mikey, It was not all for nothing and I promise you that life is not better without you. I love you big brother and I always will. Love,Little John#lifeisnotbetterwithoutyou #thinblueline #stop22 #veteranshelpingveterans #johnprestonmusic Code 9 Project Project UnBreakable The Valkyrie Initiative Bluelivesmatter Blue Help Adapt A Vet Internet RadioActive Network Neal McCoy Fox News Grunt Style Garysinise Club Grunt Style Michael Broderick Jamie Kaler Cahill Sunshine Vincent "Rocco" Vargas

Posted by John Preston on Thursday, February 7, 2019

John is now working to raise awareness of police suicide, an epidemic that has gone largely unnoticed. His newest project is the development of a t-shirt in partnership with patriotic, veteran-owned clothing manufacturer Grunt Style. The company wants to help fund a nonprofit whose goal is to honor, educate and prevent police suicide.

John will be speaking at the Blue H.E.L.P. Police Week 2019 dinner in Washington D.C. on May 11.  “I was shocked that they haven’t raised the money that they needed to raise for the event yet,” he told me.

“Interestingly, I was on the phone the same day with both Grunt Style and Blue H.E.L.P., talking about different things and it occurred to me that I could make a shirt with Grunt Style that would financially support getting these families of these fallen officers out to D.C. for this event. So that’s exactly what we did. I worked with Grunt Style to design a shirt honoring my brother Mike and Grunt Style agreed to donate 100% of the profits of the t-shirt, after the cost of production, to Blue H.E.L.P.”

When asked about the impact of his music on police suicides, John says “people have written to me and told me that the song Superman Falls has saved their life. I consider that Michael’s save. He’s still saving people after he’s gone, just like he did as a first responder. This shirt is another opportunity for us to get the word out and save more lives. That’s what it is all about.”

shirtThe t-shirt goes on sale at Grunt Style Friday, May 3, and every penny goes to the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. to fly families of fallen officers to suicide to Washington, D.C., to honor and memorialize these men and women.

John says “the shirt itself has the look of a police uniform with the likeness of a Superman emblem as an undershirt with the letters MP in the emblem [for Mike Preston]. The hashtag on the back #theworldwillknow has been my mission since losing my brother, and it means that we are going to raise awareness of this epidemic.”

Winning the War against First Responder Suicides Starts by Acknowledging the Problem

Like active duty military, first responders experience severe mental stressors every day that can lead to depression and PTS. As part of their job, police officers are often exposed to the worst of society, while firefighters are typically the first on the scene of medical emergencies.

According to Ruderman, “We need to end the silence that surrounds the issue of first responder mental health. We should celebrate the lives of those lost to suicide – at national monuments such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial, in the media, and within police and fire departments around the country.”

In professions that emphasize being tough and brave, mental health issues can easily be stigmatized. It’s up to leaders in law enforcement to light the way by assuring officers that there will be no judgment of individuals seeking help. Of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, only 3%-5% have suicide prevention training programs. That percentage is unacceptable.

These are men and women who run toward danger to keep the rest of us safe. We owe it to them to provide all the tools and resources needed to keep them healthy, engaged and, perhaps most importantly, loved for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

This is a war we can win.

To help support families of fallen officers, check out the t-shirt at Grunt Style.

Wes O'Donnell A veteran of both the US Army and US Air Force, Professor Wes O’Donnell is a highly sought after presenter who has recently spoken at TEDx on Data Visualization and the US Air Force Academy on Leadership. He is noted for his fascinating, informative, dynamic and entertaining keynotes. Wes educates companies and government organizations on a number of topics ranging from emerging technology and big data visualization to veteran’s issues and leadership. But Wes’ best talks tend to center around his personal journey from poverty to distinguished entrepreneur and professor; a truly inspiring journey.