Hassan huddles with vets over Buddy Check law

Jan. 23—CONCORD — Leaders of several veteran organizations predicted a new federal law to require a Buddy Check Week every year would be a lifesaver for soldiers dealing with mental health problems.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who authored the law, hosted a roundtable via Zoom Monday to discuss how stakeholders can take advantage of this new mandate, modeled after the American Legion's own "Buddy Check Week of National Calling."

The law requires the Veterans Administration to make sure the Veterans Crisis Line has enough staffing during this week to deal with a surge of additional telephone calls to conduct wellness checks on veterans.

The measure was contained in the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill Congress approved last month.

"All the vets I've spoken to are excited by this. It's going to take these guys a little while to get acclimated to it," said Seth Gahr, a peer-to-peer support specialist with the New Hampshire State Police.

"This is a home run program; I just wish we had this 30 years ago in New York City."

Hassan had planned to host Monday's roundtable at the American Legion's Sweeney Post in Manchester, but decided to hold it remotely due to the winter storm.

Dr. Alicia Semiatin, chief of mental health with the Manchester VA Medical Center, said the program will help advocates get proactive care to vets.

"We don't see veterans with mental health issues until they are in crisis," Semiatin said. "The Buddy Check program really allows us to do more preventative care."

Reaching out to employers is key

Amy Cook, suicide prevention coordinator for the National Alliance for Mental Illness in the state, said her organization last year conducted 650 hours of military culture and suicide prevention training for private employers and health care providers.

"The majority of vets are going to work every day. Employers need to know the warning signs," Cook said.

Commander Rick Borrazas of the Disabled American Veterans Department of New Hampshire said veterans who are struggling are more likely to accept help from a fellow veteran, ideally one with similar experiences in the military.

"Many Vietnam vets had such a bad welcome home and a bad experience with VA way back then. The key is asking the right, probing questions," Borrazas said.

Denis Querrard, senior vice commander with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said many soldiers coming back after the withdrawal from Afghanistan a year and a half ago had difficulty with that transition.

One of those New Hampshire veterans took his own life late last week, Querrard said.

"He had a child on the way and a girlfriend. We thought we had solved some issues, but his demons caught up with him," Querrard said. "Communication is the most important thing."

Hassan said steps should be taken to ensure the mental health care workforce has "cultural competency" when it comes to assisting veterans who are in crisis.

She also said Congress should consider ways to create more incentives for veterans to enter the field of mental health after their military service.

"We don't wait for other people to solve problems; we just roll up our sleeves and get going," Hassan said.

There is a toll free suicide crisis hotline that can be reached anywhere by dialing 988 and at the prompt, hit 1, which will direct services for a veteran who is in need of help, she added.

Kevin Forrest, Manchester VA Medical Center director, and Wayne Perra, adjutant of the New Hampshire American Legion, also took part in Monday's forum.

klandrigan@unionleader.com