FOND DU LAC — For veterans like Deborah Minger of Fond du Lac, accessing veteran services isn't always easy.
“It's kind of a drive for me to go to Milwaukee, or to go to Appleton," Minger said. "It seems like it takes a long time to get appointments. Some vets are disabled and can't make that trip."
According to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, 67% of veterans in the state live in rural areas, far from VA resources.
"Roughly, on average, 17-20 veterans are dying of suicide every day," Milwaukee VA Psychiatrist Michael McBride said. "So that needs to be addressed through reaching veterans, especially in rural areas where we know that our access to care is not what we want it to be."
The Milwaukee VA hosted a mental health summit in Fond du Lac Tuesday to try to reach these rural veterans, and learn which issues are most important to them.
"Since the pandemic, we're really offering more video conferencing, tele-mental health, and that has offered us a chance to reach veterans across the state," McBride said. "But that also raises the issue about broadband internet, and roughly 30% of veterans who live in rural areas do not have internet access. That's another problem we need to address."
At the summit, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs announced it is opening a new facility in Fond du Lac, hoping to expand services to vets.
"To veterans in our rural areas who may be struggling, I want to tell you: you are not alone," Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar said. "Today's summit in Fond du Lac is an example of our concern for you."
Fond du Lac area veterans said this could make accessing services much easier.
“I think I would probably expand myself as far as what benefits I use," Veteran Richard Ewald said. "As far as the medical stuff, being a little bit closer, I might look through some other benefits I think I could take part in that I don't do right now.”
When it comes to providing help to veterans, the stakes have never been higher.
In 2020, the suicide rate for Veterans was 57.3% greater than for non-Veteran U.S. adults. This is according to the Department of Veterans Affair's 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, released Monday. The report stated that the veteran suicides dropped for the second year in a row, but the VA said the work is not close to finished.
"Mental health, in particular suicide prevention, is the number one focus of the VA nationwide," McBride said.
Veteran Mark Flower said serving in the military took a devastating toll on his mental health.
"I was a drug addict and alcoholic for a very long time. Suicide ideation was, I won't say every day in my brain, but constantly and my brain," Flower said.
Now, Flower works with Captain John D. Mason Veteran Peer outreach group to help other vets like him.
"Life is good today because I had the help I needed and the peer support stuff that we have going on in Wisconsin," Flower said.
VA officials said this is part of a larger, national effort to reach underserved veterans in rural communities, and address vital issues concerning mental health.
"Today we're focused on veterans," Kolar said. "And by helping veterans, we're helping all in our community, making sure people get the help they need.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the 24/7 suicide and crisis lifeline at 9-8-8, and press 1 for veteran-specific services.