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January 20, 2018

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Police, Air Force launch program to save lives of veterans in crisis

New program helps veterans in crisis

KSNV coverage of local authorities starting a program to prevent crisis involving veterans, March 29, 2012.

Watch KSNV reporter Marie Mortera’s story about the new Veterans In Crisis program at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Channel 3.

The call did not sound good: man barricaded inside residence, possibly suicidal.

Nellis Air Force Base leaders mobilized. They knew the airman recently had returned from a war zone and other obstacles loomed in his life.

Nellis officials drove to the scene and met Metro Police, who were trying to coax the man outside. They joined the conversations, offering insight into this man’s life.

“It ended up a good news story in the fact that the individual came out and got care on base,” said Maj. Christopher Johnson, a security forces squadron commander at Nellis.

The encounter — and positive outcome — planted a seed in authorities’ minds: If they could share information about veterans in distress, it might help de-escalate other, similar situations and ultimately save lives. Planning for the new program, Veterans In Crisis, began immediately in the fall.

In December, the fatal officer-involved shooting of 43-year-old Stanley Gibson further solidified the need for such a program. In that case, an officer shot Gibson during a botched attempt to force him from his vehicle. Police later learned Gibson was a Gulf War veteran who, according to his wife, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“(Veterans) have unique emotional needs based on what they’ve done for our country,” said Capt. David O’Leary of Metro’s Northeast Area Command, which covers neighborhoods near Nellis. “I think we have to understand that we need to approach them with a different awareness, mindset, level of compassion, understanding and empathy, and skill set.”

The timing of the Veterans In Crisis program, which officially launched this week, coincides with troop withdrawals overseas, meaning more veterans will be adjusting to post-combat life.

More than 48,000 U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq by the end of last year, in line with President Barack Obama’s decree to end the nine-year war, according to figures released by the Department of Defense. Plans are in the works to bring home 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan in September.

“There is a demand now for all of us to look for ways to support returning military personnel,” O’Leary said. “I think our level of awareness of their unique needs over the last 30, 40 years in our generation has expanded.”

The heightened awareness paved the way for societal recognition of mental health issues, such as PTSD, and triggered an outcry for elevated care.

The U.S. military has confirmed 89,677 diagnosed cases of PTSD since 2000, said Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense.

Despite the assimilation of PTSD into the American vernacular, military officials said returning troops struggle to adjust in other ways, such as marriage or employment, which can manifest emotional distress.

“I think we get caught up thinking military veterans returning from war, and in some cases multiple times returning from war, are going to have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Johnson said. “Really, the majority do not … but this program was put in place for those who do.

“Whatever the percentage is, if we can help one airman, one soldier, one Marine or one sailor out there — whether they’re active duty or a veteran who's served in the past — then this program is a success story."

The basis of Veterans In Crisis is immediate two-way communication between police and base officials, O’Leary said.

It starts with a 9-1-1 call. Dispatchers question the caller or person in distress about possible military background.

If there’s a military link, dispatchers alert officers who, in turn, contact Nellis officials to glean information about the subject’s background: deployment, training, previous health issues.

The knowledge helps officers approach the individuals in a different light as opposed to by-the-book police questioning, O’Leary said.

“We can really relate to somebody more on a one-on-one personal level, and it’s been effective,” he said.

So far, authorities have used the approach during five incidents involving military personnel since January, all of which were resolved peacefully, O’Leary said.

Authorities don’t expect a huge volume of military calls, but in the coming weeks, Metro officers will undergo crisis-intervention training designed to address military needs.

“I think it’s not just a professional obligation, but it’s a moral obligation,” said O’Leary, who called discussions between Metro and Nellis officials “heartfelt.”

The program isn’t the first joint venture between Metro and Nellis authorities. Officials worked together last year to reduce property crimes in residential areas near the base, O’Leary said.

Veterans In Crisis is the next logical step in the agencies’ bid to make the community and residents safe, officials said.

“The active-duty people at Nellis are your neighbors,” Johnson said. “They may live down the street from you. A very small percentage of us live on base.”

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