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Why experts are concerned about the mental health of veterans and making services more accessible

Every year, more than 500 veterans in Florida commit suicide
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Posted at 6:03 AM, May 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-25 18:29:25-04

TAMPA, Fla. — They are the wounds you cannot see. Many veterans live day-to-day struggling with mental health illnesses, and experts are concerned about the suicide rate among veterans.

"You can't leave it in Afghanistan. You bring that stuff home," said Romy Camargo, who knows first-hand how war looks and the lasting impact it can have on your life.

In 2008, his team was ambushed in Afghanistan. He was shot in his neck and paralyzed. It took him years to recover from his physical and emotional wounds.

"One of the hardest things is to try not to think about things that happened," said Camargo.

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Romy Camargo and best friend, Joffre Celleri

"For me, it's like, I learned early in that special forces to completely put a wall and just hide everything within you," Joffre Celleri, one of Romy's closest friends, said.

Both Celleri and Camargo served together in Afghanistan. After Camargo was shot, and with little prospects of him surviving, Celleri thought he would have to escort the body of his best friend to Dover.

"For the longest, I asked God to switch places – me and Romy – because I got time to enjoy my kids. To play. He didn't," said Celleri.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans commit suicide every year, and more than 500 of them are right here in Florida.

"We know that when our service members return home, they often have wounds that are unseen," said Rep. Kathy Castor.

Many veterans live with various mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and survivors' guilt.

So, what can you do if you have a loved one who is a veteran and maybe living with a mental illness?

Experts say you can start by letting them know that you are there for them and that there is nothing wrong with seeking mental health care.

"We understand that this could be a difficult conversation to have. So, don't be discouraged if you've tried before and didn't get the result that you were looking for," said Dr. Chris Loftis with the V.A.

They are pushing a national campaign called "The Veterans Know." The campaign is aimed at letting veterans help other vets in taking the first step in receiving mental health support.

They launched a website called MakeTheConnection.net with hundreds of videos of veterans talking about their struggles and how they overcame them.

"On MakeTheConnection.net, you really can find veterans who are from your service branch, your service era, who've encountered similar challenges as you," said Dr. Loftis.

Since every veteran is different, many people advocate for a holistic approach to treating mental illness.

"I had my own suicide attempt back in 2014," said Cole Lyle, Mission Roll Call executive director. The organization's goal is to provide veterans with a direct voice to politicians in policy discussions.

As a veteran of the Afghanistan war, Lyle suffered from PTSD.

"Traditional therapy and pills didn't work for me. So, I sought access to a service dog," said Lyle.

He credits Kaya, his service dog, for helping him make it through. It's also the reason he pushed for the PAWS Act, which was signed into law last August.

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"Anybody that's ever owned a dog will tell you that dogs can be therapeutic and can have a cathartic impact on your life," said Lyle.

The VA will provide service dogs to veterans living with PTSD. West Palm Beach is one of the five cities around the U.S. selected to participate in the five-year pilot program.

"We are building a brand new state-of-the-art mental health facility here in Temple Terrace," said Dr. Glenn Catalano with the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital.

The 155,000 square-foot facility will be located at 8501 Temple Terrace Highway.

"So, it is a huge facility. It's going to include not only just general mental health care but post-traumatic stress disorder specialty care, substance abuse specialty care," said Dr. Catalano.

Dr. Catalano said they expect to open their doors to veterans in 2024.

Mental health resources for veterans: