PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Typically every Tuesday before The Players Championship begins is Military Appreciation Day. But because of COVID-19, on-site activities have changed.
To help continue its financial support of military organizations this year, The Players is hosting the Match4Military fundraising campaign Tuesday. One charity that will benefit is The Fire Watch, which was created after a friend stepped in and kept a veteran from taking his own life.
They were U.S. Army veteran Maj. Chris Dempsey’s darkest hours. He was homeless and alone in the woods with 35 cents in his bank account.
“Just really ready to give up. Literally praying for death. Starving. I had not eaten in days,” he said. “At 3 in the morning, a loaded gun in my mouth, I’m holding the trigger, and in those moments, I think the only reason I did not actually do it is because of my kids.”
Dempsey, one of the Department of Justice’s top prosecutors, lost it all -- his marriage, his children, his home -- because of trauma from his time serving in Afghanistan.
“I’ve gone to a lot of treatment. I’m 100% and totally disabled for combat PTSD, everything that goes under that umbrella: anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, chronic insomnia, substance abuse,” Dempsey said. “I was really struggling.”
But this story has a happy ending thanks to some Good Samaritans like retired U.S. Navy Capt. Daniel Bean, a local lawyer.
“I thought that with some help, just being some guardrails, that we could get him back to where he was,” Bean said.
Bean met Dempsey at the 5 Star Veterans Center, a local charity that gets service members back on their feet. With counseling and rehab and Bean as a friend and mentor, Dempsey got back on his feet. He got a job at Bean’s firm, passed the Florida Bar and married to the love of his life.
“There have been some tense moments when you walk in,” he said. “But I think the risk is worth it
This relationship has gone way beyond two friends. It’s now the model for The Fire Watch, the charity in Northeast Florida aimed at ending veteran suicide.
“The problem is awful,” said Nick Howland, executive director of The Fire Watch. “The statistics will really shake you.”
Howland said it comes out to about 22 suicides per day nationwide and, on average a veteran takes their life in Northeast Florida every week.
The Fire Watch is building a network of so-called Watch Standers, volunteers who are trained to identify the warning signs and step in.
“Our program is a little bit like mental health CPR, so to speak,” Howland said. “What we want you to be able to do is be aware of the issues, identify early when there is a veteran in crisis and get the veteran the help they need.”
It’s already promising. Since it started in May, 450 people have signed up to be Watch Standers. It’s a long way from the goal of 10,000 by 2021, but The Players Championship is helping.
Last year, the tournament honored Dempsey at Military Appreciation Day. This year, the tournament is matching donations made toward The Fire Watch and other military organizations in Northeast Florida dollar for dollar up to $250,000 as part of Match4Military. News4Jax is proud to partner with The Players for the campaign.
There are ups and downs.
“As a matter of fact, I was having a hard time just last weekend, and Dan was there for me,” Dempsey said.
But Bean and Dempsey hope they can continue to inspire people that a little help goes a long way.
If you want to be a Watch Stander, go to TheFireWatch.org, click the “Watch Standers” button at the top of the screen and then register. From there, you’ll get the details about your free courses. Veterans can also go to the site to get connected with a buddy -- that too is free.
It only takes about 45 minutes.
Visit www.theplayers.com/match4military to make a donation to help our heroes who have served.