MILITARY MATTERS: East Alabama retreat helps veterans considering suicide

Updated: Jul. 3, 2020 at 12:23 AM EDT
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FIVE POINTS, Ala. (WTVM) - Recently, President Trump outlined a national plan to address the 6,000 suicides every year by U.S. military veterans.

To help with this crisis, only made worse by COVID-19, groups partnered for an event in East Alabama to help vets fight their demons.

“We have 20 veterans here, all the way from Desert Storm to all the Iraqi wars,” said Scott Smith, The Barn Group president and CEO. ”Most of these people have thought about or tried to take their own life.”

His Barn Group teamed up with American Military Family to help American combat veterans at the Healing Heroes retreat, at Rock Fence Farm in Five Points Alabama, which is in Chambers County. Retired Marine Sgt. Tommy Buchholz was invited, coming from Washington state. He served more than five years in the Marines, including a deployment to Iraq from 2006 to 2007.

“I saw a lot of things you can’t forget,” said Buchholz.

After the military, he worked as an air traffic controller, but said was forced to leave that job a few years ago due to PTSD.

“Drinking too much, using drugs, getting into all kinds of trouble. I was homeless most of last year with all kinds of issues,” Buchholz added.

The idea is to get them out in nature, sometimes on ATVs, to get away from day-to-day activities or struggles. Veterans and their family members at this four-day retreat also went boating on Lake Wedowee, skeet shooting, fishing, and enjoyed good fellowship and food.

“We work with veterans in crisis and our mission is to bring them from suicidal to successful. When you bring veterans together that have been away from each other, they come together and merge as family, like they did in battle,” said Debbie McElhinney, founder and CEO of American Military Family.

“The goal of this retreat is to help these guys start their new normal,” Smith said.

Teaching them how to reconnect and reintegrate back into society included digging deep in fireside chats with fellow warriors who have recovered from attempted suicides to help them realize they’re not alone, even when the pain seems insurmountable.

“You’re not the only person that has these things going on with them and then the second thing, people care,” Buchholz said.

Smith explained, “We can get them to realize number one, their life is worth it, number two, they need help, and number three, they can do it.”

That task has not been made any easier by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the military groups hosting this event have a challenge for all of us.

“We’ve lost more veterans to suicide than we did in all of the Vietnam War. That’s kinda staggering. That’s over 60,000 people that felt the need. We’re missing the boat somewhere. We need to rise to the occasion for these folks the way they always rise to the occasion for us,' McElhinney said, startled by the stats.

The retreat in Chambers County was made possible by a donation of 433 acres of conserved land to the Barn Group.

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