JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Five counties in Northeast Florida are teaming up to end the growing crisis of veteran suicides across the nation.
The city of Jacksonville has joined Baker, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties to save lives through a program called "The Fire Watch." The focus is to reduce the suicide rate among men and women following military service.
The city of Jacksonville approved the agreement Oct. 22. The program took effect in a signing ceremony Wednesday.
"We owe it to our veterans to do everything in our power to put a stop to this and that's why we're all here joining arms today," Mayor Lenny Curry said.
The program is designed to help veterans like Christopher Dempsey, who has battled suicidal thoughts.
"It really made more sense to pull the plug to kill myself frankly than it did to move forward because it was just a painful process. I was in a dark place and I could see no light,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey is not alone.
Northeast Florida is home to more than 100,000 veterans. More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“In the course of my job, I have literally spoken with dozens, if not hundreds of disabled veterans, who are struggling with suicidal thoughts," City Councilman Rory Diamond said. "The truth of the matter is veteran suicide is actually getting worse every day, not better... we decided to step up, get off the sidelines and get into the battle."
Diamond is the CEO of K9s For Warriors and is working with leaders and organizations in the neighboring counties mentioned above to make sure veterans have access to the services and resources they need.
With the right relationships, proper tools and resources, Dempsey turned his life around.
"I'm working, I have a beautiful apartment right on the water in San Marco, I met a woman I'm going to marry,” Dempsey said.
Diamond said a major focus is on creating a network of thousands of veterans to build strong, interpersonal relationships with each other.
“If we do our job right, if we rally our resources, use our very best brains and use the best peer-reviewed evidence based on data and programs we will save lives," Diamond explained.
Jacksonville will serve as the legal home of "The Fire Watch" and coordinate with the surrounding counties via inter-local agreements.
Dempsey had these words of advice for veterans struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“As dark as it may seem right now, it is darkest before the dawn. The light is going to come, and it's going to shine on you if you can just persevere,” Dempsey said. “Remember the soldiers creed, never quit never accept defeat. Right, apply that now to this moment you will survive.”