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Wednesday, November 22, 2017, 7:19 a.m.

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Patriot Fest to focus on resources for vets

By Sam Pierce

This article was published November 5, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.

we-are-the-22-a-nonprofit-that-works-to-reduce-veteran-suicide-will-host-the-first-patriot-fest-on-saturday-with-a-memorial-walk-to-begin-at-8-am-at-friendly-acres-park-in-judsonia-members-include-kneeling-from-left-jerad-harrison-travis-haskell-and-david-lowrey-and-standing-larry-johnson-organizer-mikel-brooks-melanie-fetterolf-and-jessie-stark

We Are the 22, a nonprofit that works to reduce veteran suicide, will host the first Patriot Fest on Saturday with a memorial walk to begin at 8 a.m. at Friendly Acres Park in Judsonia. Members include, kneeling, from left, Jerad Harrison, Travis Haskell and David Lowrey; and standing, Larry Johnson, organizer Mikel Brooks, Melanie Fetterolf and Jessie Stark.

— The biggest thing standing in the way of a veteran getting the help he or she needs is the know-how. That’s where Mikel Brooks of Ward, the organizer of the first ever Patriot Fest, steps in.

“A lot of these smaller organizations are run by donations, and they don’t have a lot of money to put their information out there,” he said. “This gives them a good platform to do so.

“That way, any vet in the crowd of family members will, at the end of the day, hopefully, have a good time, but if they need help or have trouble, hopefully, they can walk away from the event with information on how to get help.”

Patriot Fest will take place Saturday, beginning with a walk at 8 a.m. The walk will start at Friendly Acres Park in Judsonia and finish at the Veterans Memorial wall in Bald Knob, approximately 5 miles.

Brooks said the walk is to raise awareness of the number of veteran suicides.

“We are asking for a $5 donation per walker to help us cover the costs associated with the event,” Brooks said.

Brooks is the founder of the nonprofit organization We Are the 22, which works directly with the Department of Veterans Affairs office to help improve the quality of care for the vets.

“Besides working with the VA, we actually looked at the veteran-suicide crisis. That’s where we got our name,” Brooks said. According to a 2013 United States Department of Veterans Affairs study, there were 22 vets a day who died by suicide. The most recent VA report in 2016 shows the number had changed to an average of 20 deaths per day.

Brooks said that since 1999, there have been about 148,000 veteran suicides.

“That’s a lot; that’s massive,” Brooks said. “We looked deeper and figured out that 70 percent were not actively enrolled or engaged with the VA system.

“It’s the best avenue of care for a combat vet because that’s what it is specifically geared for. We try to encourage vets to go in and get help.”

Brooks said his organization does whatever it can to encourage veterans and keep in contact with them.

“Any help they need with their disability claims or resources, whatever they might need, we attempt to pull resources together and get the vet whatever he needs,” Brooks said. “Whatever it takes, we do to save them.”

For more information, visit the website www.wearethe22.org.

After the walk, the event will move to the downtown courtyard in Bald Knob, where guests can listen to free live music and guest speakers, and have lunch.

“The main idea behind this event [is that] veterans have very few options for things to do on Veterans Day in Arkansas. As a vet, you can go sit in line at a restaurant for a free meal or go to a car show,” Brooks said.

“What we are offering is a gathering of local vet organizations that will come here. The speakers are all representatives from different veterans organizations in the area,” he said. “They are going to inform the people of what’s out there and try to establish a link with the community.

“We are going to have a good time, but we are also going to inform them. We want it to be a positive, but informative, event.

“That’s the idea behind it.”

One of the guest speakers slated for Saturday is Dr. Irving Kuo of North Little Rock, the associate chief of staff for mental-health services for the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System.

“One of the emphases of my speech will be suicide and suicide prevention,” Kuo said. “In order to reduce that number, it is going to take the entire community, not just the VA.

“There are a lot of factors for why veterans contemplate suicide. One institution cannot make it better by itself. We need assistance from the entire community to help prevent suicide.”

Kuo has worked at the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center in North Little Rock since October 2002.

“I truly appreciate what they have done,” Kuo said. “I have married into a veteran family, and being connected with them, hearing their stories, made me appreciate it so much more.

“I just really appreciate them and admire them for everything they go through. They make a lot of sacrifices for us that we take for granted.”

Brooks and Kuo have been working together to improve veterans’ care.

“We examined things that could be easier in order to access our care,” Kuo said. “He’ll bring veterans in, and he gives a fresh eye on situations.

“It helps improve our process.”

After serving two combat tours with the Arkansas Army National Guard, Brooks was awarded the Purple Heart and was forced to retire from the Guard because of his injuries.

“For a long time, I was right where they’re at. I attempted suicide twice and got on drugs,” Brooks said.

“We are those guys, and we want to be a voice for the guys who commit suicide. That’s why we work with the VA,” he said. “If those 22 guys could have had help, they may not have done what they did.

“We attempt to be their voice and educate the public on their crisis and the epidemic. People are working harder. I’m very impressed with Dr. Kuo.”

Brooks said about 40 people have already registered for the Patriot Fest.

“We haven’t even done a full push yet,” Brooks said. “We want to get a lot information out there and help veterans with anything they might need.”

The VA’s Veterans Crisis Line is available for confidential support at any time by calling (800) 273-8255 and press 1, chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/chat, or text to 838255.

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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