A new outreach program at the Medical College of Wisconsin was created and named after a veteran who lost his own battle with depression and PTSD.
The Captain John D. Mason Peer Outreach Program will help veterans connect with health care and mental health resources at the Veterans Affairs hospital.
Mason served in Vietnam and struggled silently with depression and PTSD. He never sought any treatment and in 2013, he committed suicide.
He left five suicide letters, one to his wife, one each for his two children, one for his best friend and one addressed to all of them.
His best friend Joe Tate decided to take that fifth letter and record himself reading it out loud. In the letter, Mason says he hopes his death will help other veterans struggling.
"Get me to the VA so they can stop someone else," Mason wrote. "Too late for me."
When Tate received these letters, he decided to approach the Medical College of Wisconsin with Mason's wishes.
"His best friend Joe Tate...was asked to carry this message to other veterans so they don't have to suffer as he did," said Steven Heiges, who now leads the Captain John D. Mason Peer Outreach Program.
"The premise of the program is really to reach out to those veterans that are not receiving healthcare in one capacity or another," said Heiges. "I have the direct access points to hand a veteran off instead of a veteran just going in there and getting lost within the system."
Heiges says he struggled mentally after returning from deployments overseas. He spent a total 26 years in the Army.
"I came back and I was pretty broke," he said. "It took me a couple of years to get my stuff together. "I'm very blessed because I had a great team at the VA that supported me and brought me to where I'm at now."
The unique part of this program involves Heiges actively looking for veterans in the community who need help, rather than waiting for them to seek help. Once they are located, Heiges can connect them with appropriate resources.
"I'm giving back to the guys behind me to help them not have such a chaotic and destructive life if you will," said Heiges.
He will be working with veteran organizations in the community, as well as churches and civic organizations to connect with veterans.
Heiges says only six percent of veterans use VA services, and 70 percent of veterans who commit suicide were not regular users of VA services.
"I understand that process of healing and the best way to heal is to talk about it," he said. "As you talk about that and you resonate with each other, you actually heal."
If you are a Veteran in crisis, or you’re concerned about one, free, confidential support is available 24/7. Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online.
Other resources for veterans in need: