In a series of Q&A’s, IAVA is sharing what #VetsRising means, and is, to our members. Meet Ryan Kaufman, a U.S. Army OEF/OIF veteran who resides in Grand Island, Nebraska.
What brought you to IAVA?
I came to IAVA looking for support as an employee of a rural-focused non-profit. I became a member during Storm the Hill in 2014, and was able to lobby my local representative’s office from Grand Island. We do not all need to go to D.C. to make a difference. I have a story to tell, and IAVA allows me the platform to tell it. We are not broken. My Alive Day did not come while in service, it came afterward. Let’s say it was May 4, 2008. That day is made up because I am too chicken shit to revisit my medical records and pinpoint the exact day I tried to take my own life. I was blacked out under the influence and attempted to swallow a whole bottle of medication. That day, if I would have accomplished what I set out to do, I would have cheated the world out of their voice. Not mine, but theirs.
I have worked with IAVA on several events. From sponsoring local Memorial Day barbecues, marching on Veterans Day in my hometown to testifying on Capitol Hill on behalf of IAVA, all of these events come with a great deal of responsibility. Rural Americans, not just veterans, are five times more likely to commit suicide. An hour ride in the city seems like a trek, but where we’re from, it can save a life.
One approach you’ve taken to VetTogethers is the use of buddy checks. How are VetTogethers a good outlet for that kind of crucial peer support?
Some of us have heard of the “buddy check” concept from Facebook. You call a buddy you served with on the 22nd of each month and check on them. In our area we thought, the hell with phone calls. An OIF veteran who runs with us asked our Central Nebraska Team if we could find a venue to host a “VetTogether” of sorts. He had heard of our barbecues and marching and thought, why not have a permanent gathering spot each month on the 22nd? Our team thought that was an out-freaking-standing idea. Since October, the concept has spread literally across the state. From Colorado to Iowa, five different cities (with more to come) will have a gathering spot on the same day each month for vets to come together and check in with one another.
From a peer support standpoint, this is perfect. We meet the veteran where they are and have a group of men and women who are trained in peer support, Mental Health First Aid and Suicide ASIST. We attempt to connect with each person who walks in, and want them to know we value not only their attendance, but also their lives. If they have any issue, we may not have the answer today, but we will find someone who will. We have the ability to lean on local, regional, state and federal resources to ensure if the person needs and wants a remedy, we can provide them an outlet. And you thought we were just coming for a slice of pizza. You thought we are just jumping in a kayak, or hanging out on a ranch with horses in Texas. Nope. We are a grassroots level group with education, experience and backed by resources. These aren’t just referrals, these are resources we have utilized ourselves. That is the heart of peer support. To quote Warren G, “Were just not some geek off the street.” We are not just handing you a RRRP card. WE’VE USED IT.
What’s the best thing you’ve heard from someone since you’ve been involved with IAVA?
After testifying with the IAVA’s D.C. team, we left with our heads held high and adrenaline pumping. I had just finished telling the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs about my repeated stints in homelessness, my replicated failures at a bachelor’s degree, reworked separations from spouse and family, as well as sharing I will get a doctorate. My kids would value education. They will value family. As I walked down the steps of the Capitol, a young man stopped me. He said he just wanted to shake my hand and shared the admiration he had for me for telling HIS story; for finding the strength to call it what it was, to get up and move forward. He also told me he couldn’t wait until he could share that story of inspiration. I told him there was no reason to wait. We need him. We need his story. It is his turn. Every day we wake up and we move forward. We crush our goals, make new ones, and crush that one too. It was up to him. Not up to the suits. No matter what D.C. decides we are entitled to, it is up to us to produce results. It’s not the school’s fault. Not the VA’s fault. It was up to him. No matter what.
I thanked him, welcomed him home, and told him he was next in line. May 4, 2008 — I didn’t realize why I was spared. Today, and every day, I focus on the goal and I know why. Guys and gals like me need to hear that it’s worth it. Life is worth it. Whatever we are going through can be used to help the next person through what they are struggling with.
I hear it at every Buddy Check. I hear it every Veterans Day. It is not about me. It is about us. It’s about #VetsRising. (PS I hate hashtags, but if that’s how you find us, it’s worth it.)