JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With an estimated 20 U.S. military veterans taking their lives every day, a Jacksonville-based group hopes to make that troubling trend a thing of the past, and they’re challenging you to get involved.
As part of Positively Jax, News4Jax is teaming up with The Fire Watch to achieve that objective. The goal is to equip volunteers with the knowledge and training to identify veterans in crisis and connect them with the resources and agencies that are available to help.
Nick Howland, executive director of The Fire Watch, said the organization’s mission is simple: to put a stop to veteran suicide in Northeast Florida. The key pillar of that effort is the Watch Stander program.
“Being a Watch Stander means being vigilant to the concerns of veterans,” Howland told News4Jax. “We’re mobilizing 10,000 members of the community to learn the warning signs of veterans in crisis, to learn how to ask them if they need help and to learn to get them the help and resources they need.”
Howland said the organization has made the program simple enough that everyone can help.
“If a veteran is in crisis, you call 911 or the veteran crisis line. If a veteran just needs help, you go to our resources guide that we maintain on TheFireWatch.org or you call 211.”
The United Way’s 211 line is the region’s 24/7 help line for information and referrals, said Jeff Winkler, head of basic needs for the United Way of Northeast Florida. He said the 211 line also serves as a crisis and suicide hotline for individuals throughout the area to get access to community resources.
There are veteran volunteers standing by who can help with veteran-specific issues, Winkler said. The organization also aims to help veterans through its Mission United program, which assists veterans and their families as they transition from military to civilian life.
“United Way is so proud to serve with Mission United to be that connective tissue for veterans who don’t know where to turn,” he said. “They can contact us and we have very highly trained individuals who are going to make sure they can navigate those resources and get connected to the agencies that can help them.”
Become a Watch Stander
If you’re interested in helping out, The Fire Watch is looking for volunteers who care about veterans.
As a Watch Stander, you’ll be trained on how to identify warning signs and risks among veterans and how to reach out to them to see if they need help. Then you’ll help veterans navigate the available resources to figure out what best suits their needs.
“It takes three minutes to sign up, 30 minutes to train and you can be saving lives for a lifetime,” Howland said. “We ask once you stand watch that you get out there to two or three veterans events per year and engage with veterans.”
Training entails watching instructional videos, getting acquainted with resources for veterans and signing a pledge. The qualification process takes less than 45 minutes to complete.
“How do you solve veteran suicide? We love on our veterans. We get them resources when they’re in crisis. We’ve got our Watch Stander program, which trains you -- every single person in Northeast Florida -- how to see a veteran when they’re in crisis and how to get them good resources,” said Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond, founder of The Fire Watch.
Liz Sherr is a trained counselor and the director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone, which offers therapy services for veterans, active duty service members and their family members. She explained some of the signs that a veteran is in crisis.
“Some of those warning signs can be they’re withdrawing from activities that they might enjoy, they are angry, their ability to regulate emotion is not as stable as it usually has been, they’re just not talking to people and they’re not themselves,” Sherr said. “It could be around the anniversary of something that happened to them during their military service, and they’re not who they used to be.”
Wolf Critton, an Army veteran, is a Watch Stander who has dedicated his life to ending veteran suicide. And he’s leveraging his TikTok channel, which has more than 250,000 followers, to help reach veterans in crisis.
“I’m the veteran that I needed when I was at the lowest point in my life,” Critton said. “I wish I had someone like me to talk to at that time, and I made a promise to myself to dedicate my life to being that man for the other vets out there, my brothers and sisters in arms.”
Critton said he stays up late answering messages and chatting with veterans who open up about the issues they face. Their problems range from alcoholism to drug addiction. He relies on his personal experience to help them get through difficult times.
“For me, it’s wind therapy with the motorcycle,” Critton said.
For Heidi, The Fire Watch reached out to her and offered her resources and condolences after she lost her father last year.
“Just being able to, like Rory said, love on our veterans and offer them those resources, even if it’s getting them in touch with somebody else, that there is help, that suicide doesn’t have to be the final answer,” she said. “As everybody watches these videos that they’ve made and shed some light on what signs you can look out for, you could potentially save a life and save a family from being in my position.”
At the start of Tuesday, The Fire Watch had 838 Watch Standers. As of about 10 p.m., after The Fire Watch’s phone bank at News4Jax, there were 953 Watch Standers -- an increase of 115. Howland said that’s the highest single-day Watch Stander gain in the 396 days of the program’s existence. Howland also said 70 people sent a text for a registration link, so they expect the number of Watch Standers to increase.
Visit The Fire Watch’s website to learn how to become a Watch Stander.