County Veterans Affairs launching suicide prevention program

The Venango County Veterans Affairs office is rolling out a new program to combat suicide by veterans.

Harry Whittemore, the county’s VA director, said that when he started his job about a year ago, he was approached by Shannon Mahoney, the county’s human services deputy administrator of systems, about working with veterans on a suicide prevention program.

The program, which involves training for veterans to help connect other veterans with resources, is called Battle Buddies.

“When I was in the military, I had a partner, a battle buddy. That’s where I got the idea for the name,” Whittemore said.

He said he worked with Mahoney and the Venango County Suicide Prevention Task Force to put the program together.

“The state is on a downward trend (for veteran suicides), but for a small county our numbers are rough,” said Whittemore, who added that “one is too many.”

The plan is to offer a training to veterans so they will have the knowledge to be there for other veterans. The training will be in two phases, he said.

The first phase is QPR (Gatekeepers Training) which is general suicide prevention training, Whittemore said.

The second phase will be veteran specific QPR training, he added.

“After the training is done, veterans can engage other veterans and if they need help, refer them to resources,” Whittemore said. He said the county has good resources for suicide prevention that could see greater use.

The training is “a couple of hours long” and in person, Whittemore said, adding that he and another veteran have completed the first phase of the training.

Whittemore said he is waiting to get a group of veterans who have completed the first training before offering the second phase of training.

The goal is “putting more trainers out in the environment. If someone is having trouble, hopefully someone will be there to engage them and refer them to resources,” Whittemore said.

Veterans who have completed the training will receive a challenge coin. The coin features the program logo that combines the Venango County Veterans Affairs logo and the county suicide prevention task force logo on dog tags.

The program is still in the initial phases, Whittemore said. Once veterans have gone through the suicide prevention training they could partner with another veteran who has also been trained or one who hasn’t been trained.

Or trained veterans could not be partnered with a buddy at all, he added.

“Veterans engage with other veterans at clubs and other places. We have the most contact with each other,” Whittemore said.

Whittemore said a training is scheduled for Dec. 1 at 737 Elk St. in Franklin. Veterans who are interested in participating may can call the VA office at (814) 432- 9780.

“If I get 10 a year, I’ll be happy,” Whittemore said of training veterans.

To get the word out about the program, Whittemore has purchased 300 rubber ducks with veteran hats on to tag Jeeps with. He attached information to the ducks about the Battle Buddies program.

In coming years, Whittemore said he would like to have an annual releasing of the ducks with different themes that honor veterans and bring attention to the challenges they face.

To get the program off the ground, Whittemore applied for and received a state Veterans Trust Fund Grant of $20,000 to cover training, supplies, marketing and a guest speaker.

Whittemore said he isn’t ready to reveal who the speaker will be, but the event will be free for veterans.

Whittemore said there is a regional veteran suicide hotline, 988 and then press 1, and a county crisis number, 9111, for veterans who are in need of help or who are considering suicide.


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