Georgians scrambling to help struggling veterans amid trying year

Humanitarian workers step up as suicide rates rise

Jim Lindenmayer lost his younger sister to suicide nine years ago. The West Point grad and U.S. Army veteran doesn’t want anyone else to experience the same pain his family has endured. So he is scrambling to help fellow veterans.

The retired account executive’s work is especially critical now in 2020, a rollercoaster of a year full of emotional triggers for veterans struggling with mental health problems: The deadly coronavirus pandemic, a divisive presidential election and civil unrest. On top of that, the COVID-19 outbreak is making it difficult for veterans to get the in-person therapy they need.

Lindenmayer, 62, who leads the American Legion Post 45′s Cherokee County Homeless Veteran Program, is part of a nationwide network of humanitarians aiding needy veterans amid an uptick in suicides.

“We don’t want people to go through that. All you are left with is questions. You have no answers,” he said, recalling his 47-year-old sister Gretchen’s suicide in 2011. “It is going to haunt you for the rest of your life as to why it happened. It haunts me now.”

The number of U.S. servicemembers who took their own lives reached 260 in the first half of this year, a nearly 4% increase from the same period last year when 251 suicides were recorded in the military, according to a Defense Suicide Prevention Office report released in October.

The suicide rate among veterans increased slightly in Georgia and across the nation between 2017 and 2018, the most recent year for which the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department has released data. In Georgia, the suicide rate per 100,000 veterans rose from 27.9 to 29.3 during those years.

Military leaders have cited many possible factors, including mental health problems, financial concerns, and isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They have provided prevention training at military hospitals and clinics and are rushing to boost mental health care and financial counseling.

But some veterans say those efforts are not enough. That is where Lindenmayer comes in. The New York native grew up in a military family and learned a lot helping his late father, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, file a medical claim with the VA about his father’s exposure to asbestos.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Lindenmayer now helps other veterans file medical claims. Unafraid of ruffling feathers, he pushes the VA to help them, sometimes looping in congressional staffers and adding sharp criticism of the federal agency in his emails.

Meanwhile, Lindenmayer’s American Legion post has teamed up with Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization that provides free mental health services to veterans and their families. To offer a free fly-fishing program for disabled and elderly veterans, he and other local volunteers have joined forces with the Cohutta Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Robert Bills, 31, a veteran soldier from Dawsonville who suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, has struggled with homelessness. Lindenmayer helped him pay his rent and found him a donated car.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

“Jim is like an angel,” Bills said while taking a break from helping Lindenmayer build a wheelchair ramp for a fellow disabled veteran in Canton.

Donna Bell, 62, an Air Force veteran from Murphy, North Carolina, who has been diagnosed with complex PTSD, said Lindenmayer listened to her without judging her.

“He said, ‘You just don’t worry about me, Donna,’” she recalled. “‘You have got every right to feel the way you feel.’ And he just let me go. He let me go and tell him what happened to me. So that is why he is my hero.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Lindenmayer has collaborated with Amy Stevens, 67, of Marietta, a veteran Navy officer who created a Facebook networking group for fellow female veterans. Called GA Military Women, the group now has more than 4,000 members, many of whom gather for meals, go on walks and see performances together. Such relationships, Stevens said, are key to preventing suicide.

“We provide friendships,” said Stevens, a licensed professional counselor. “It doesn’t matter what your service was. If you raised your hand and joined the military as a female who lives in Georgia, we would like you to join us.”

Demetria Winters, 53, an Army veteran from Jonesboro, and Nikia Eason, 42, a Navy veteran from Sylvania, both battle depression. They appreciate the camaraderie and support they have gotten from GA Military Women, especially this year.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

“It really is a support group,” said Winters, a nurse. “Sometimes you need people who understand where you are coming from in order to feel validated.”

Eason, who suffers from PTSD, once went on a riverboat cruise in Savannah with other members of the group.

“We all served. We are veterans. No one judges anybody,” said Eason, an author and Baptist church minister. “We laughed. We bonded. We joked. We teased. And it felt good because I was around other people who relate to me.”