Wisconsin VA working to reach rural veterans, address mental health

FOND DU LAC – For veterans like Fond du Lac’s Deborah Minger, accessing veteran services isn’t always easy.

“It’s kind of a drive for me to go to Milwaukee or to Appleton,” Minger said. “It seems like it takes a long time to get appointments. Some vets are disabled and can’t make this trip.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, 67% of the state’s veterans live in rural areas far from VA resources.

“On average, 17 to 20 veterans die by suicide every day,” said Milwaukee VA psychiatrist Michael McBride. “So that needs to be addressed by reaching out to veterans, particularly in rural areas where we know our access to care is not what we would like.”

The Milwaukee VA hosted a mental health summit in Fond du Lac Tuesday to try to reach these rural veterans and learn what issues are most important to them.

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“Since the pandemic, we’ve really offered more video conferencing and telemental health, and that has given us an opportunity to reach veterans across the state,” McBride said. “But that also raises the issue of broadband internet, and about 30% of veterans living in rural areas don’t have internet access. That’s another issue we need to address.”

At the summit, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it will open a new facility in Fond du Lac in hopes of expanding veterinary services.

“To those veterans in our rural areas who may be struggling, I want to say you’re not alone,” said Mary Kolar, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. “Today’s summit in Fond du Lac is an example of our concern for you.”

Veterans from the Fond du Lac region said it could make access to services much easier.

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“I think I would probably stretch as far as what advantages I get,” said veteran Richard Ewald. “As far as the medical stuff goes, once I’m a little closer I might look through some other benefits that I think I could attend, which I’m not doing right now.”

When it comes to helping veterans, the stakes have never been higher.

In 2020, the suicide rate among veterans was 57.3% higher than among non-veterans in the United States. That’s according to the Department of Veterans Affair’s 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, released Monday. The report says veteran suicides have fallen for the second straight year, but the VA said the work is far from complete.

“Mental health, specifically suicide prevention, is the number one focus of the VA nationwide,” McBride said.

Veteran Mark Flower said military service has taken a devastating toll on his mental health.

“I was addicted to drugs and an alcoholic for a very long time. Suicidal thoughts weren’t in my brain every day, I mean, but they were in my brain all the time,” Flower said.

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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 in Wisconsin,” Flower said.

VA officials said this is part of a larger national effort to reach underserved veterans in rural communities and address important mental health issues.

“Today we are focusing on veterans,” Kolar said. “And by helping veterans, we’re helping everyone in our community and 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 emergency number at 9-8-8 and press 1 for veteran-specific services.

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