GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. – A Northeast Florida coalition aimed at preventing veteran suicide will hold its first Clay County public meeting this week.
“The Fire Watch” is a new program focused on finding ways to combat the epidemic of veteran suicide. Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties teamed up to save lives through the program, which will provide one-on-one counseling and local telephone helplines for Northeast Florida veterans.
Each county has appointed local leaders and veterans to oversee the program in its area. Clay County Commissioner Gavin Rollins, a veteran himself, is spearheading the effort in Clay County.
“A lot of times, sadly, veterans suffer in silence and the scars they bring back from war, they are not always willing to talk about or share, and we want them to know that this is a community effort," Rollins said.
The five-county fire watch coalition took effect in a signing ceremony in November.
A major part of "The Fire Watch” program is creating a network of thousands of veterans to build strong, interpersonal relationships with each other. The program is designed to help veterans such as 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," said Dempsey, a Judge Advocate General lawyer and Army combat veteran.
Dempsey is not alone.
Northeast Florida is home to more than 100,000 veterans. The number of veteran suicide deaths per year nationally increased from 5,787 in 2005 to 6,139 in 2017, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
Rollins said it’s time to take immediate action in Northeast Florida.
“(Washington), D.C., has done some things recently. President (Donald) Trump has created a task force, and we’re hopeful that some of those things will take effect in a positive way, and the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) is trying to do stuff to make a difference in this,” Rollins said. “But on the local level, we can’t wait around for solutions to come from D.C. We’ve got to act now. The crisis is too great.”
Monday’s meeting in Clay County will begin at 6 p.m. at the Board of County Commissioners meeting room in Green Cove Springs. During the meeting, Clay County program leaders will present the veteran resource guide, “The Fire Watch” mobile app and ways to identify risks and signs.