We Are The 22 suicide intervention group saves lives
May we never forget that freedom isn’t free,” President Ronald Reagan said at the 1982 Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery as he honored those who lost their lives in service to their country.
For combat veterans, those words have an even deeper meaning. Many know firsthand what paying the cost of freedom is all about. They have lost friends in battle or its aftermath, while others have suffered physical and emotional trauma from their service. Although many find ways to cope, others don’t and are taking their lives at an alarming rate. Research has shown that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
Arkansas native Mikel Brooks almost became one of those statistics.
A decorated Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, Brooks became addicted to pain medications while recovering from combat injuries that forced him out of the service in 2009. By 2017, he was also hooked on street drugs and was homeless, staying in an abandoned house in Judsonia. One night, he decided to end his life by overdosing on drugs. Before he did it, he called a suicide hotline, but because it was based in Oregon, the woman couldn’t refer him to resources in Arkansas. After ending the call, he took the drugs. Immediately, he knew he had made a mistake.
“As I began to fade out, I remember begging my God to let me live, and I swore that if someone busted through that door right then and saved me that I would do everything I could to make up for my mistakes,” Brooks says. “But no one came.”
Instead, he woke up 23 hours later, determined to make sure that when other veterans in crisis reach out for help, someone would be there — not just on the phone but physically present. That’s when Brooks, who now lives in Little Rock, began the process that led to the formation of the We Are The 22 suicide intervention group. Six years later, the nonprofit organization has about 130 veterans who have been trained in suicide intervention. The group has a board of directors, also made up of veterans, and an executive director.
“There are a lot of groups that do veteran suicide awareness campaigns, and there are different organizations that do prevention efforts,” says Sam Sellers, executive director of We Are The 22, who lives in Little Rock. “We’re neither of those. We support those, we love those, but we go into gear when those efforts have failed.”
Sellers, a retired Army major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t lose any soldiers under his command while in combat. But within 18 months of returning home, 2 of his men died by suicide.
“When I went to Iraq, I just knew that I wasn’t coming home,” he says. “I was in a dangerous situation at the tip of the spear, and I’m like, ‘I know I’m not coming home.’ And I did. So, there was some survivor guilt … many of the guys that I was with did not.”
Those feelings intensified after he survived his service in Afghanistan, he says. “Still to this day, I struggle, but not all of the time,” and because of that, he is passionate about his work with the We Are The 22 group, which he joined about four years ago. A retired lieutenant colonel with strong administrative skills, Sellers volunteered to run the group’s office.
Taking the Calls
When a veteran calls the We Are The 22 Veteran Suicide Crisis Hotline at (855) 932-7384, which is staffed 24-7, a volunteer dispatcher will take the call and assign it to the two-person responder team located nearest to the veteran in need. Sellers says the group has volunteer responders throughout the state and can cover all 75 counties. About 10% of the responders are female and will answer calls from female veterans, when possible, Sellers says.
Once a call has been assigned, the team conducts an in-person intervention. Responders wear protective vests for their safety and carry other equipment, including Narcan, medicine to reverse the effects of opioids. They have received instructions through Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), as well as first-aid training. Equipment and training costs about $1,000 per person, Sellers says, adding that the group depends on donations to fund its mission.
Veterans Helping Veterans
As fellow veterans, there is a common bond that helps build trust from the start, Sellers says.
“We can knock on the door, and we can say, ‘We’re not the cops; we’re not your shrink,’” Sellers says. “’We’re just fellow vets here because we care enough about you to be here. What’s going on?’”
Since its inception in 2017, the group has become an important resource for local police and fire departments. When those departments get emergency calls, if it is a veteran, they often contact We Are The 22 to handle the call while they are on standby, Sellers says. The group also works closely with the Veterans Administration hospital and has the authority to transport veterans there if the veteran in crisis wants to go. The goal is to prevent troubled veterans from doing harm and then refer them to other resources where they can get help, Sellers says.
So far, the group has successfully responded to more than 430 calls, which is an average of one to two calls a week. Many calls come on holidays when troubled veterans suffering from addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder are often more at risk for triggers, Sellers says.
After they have received help and are in recovery, many of the veterans who called We Are The 22 seeking help are now volunteering as responders. Brooks says this is part of the healing process.
“When I began responding in the beginning to other guys, it made me have a sense of belonging and purpose again,” Brooks says, adding that because of his combat injuries, he is disabled and unemployable. With We Are The 22, he and others can once again serve.
“A soldier’s got to have a mission,” Brooks says.
To contact the We Are The 22 Veteran Suicide Crisis Hotline call (855) 932-7384.