N.D. American Legion uses Facebook, Twitter to reach young veterans
JAMESTOWN -- At 90 years old, one organization is getting with the times.
Established in 1919, the North Dakota's branch of the American Legion is using online social networking sites -- typically thought of as fun, upbeat Web sites used to interact with friends and acquaintances -- for serious purposes: finding help for veterans with mental illness and preventing suicide.
The North Dakota American Legion announced its campaign, Courage Carries On, at the Legion's winter conference in Jamestown Saturday.
Mental illness, whether onset by war or other traumatic experiences, is not only devastating, but can also be deadly, said Jim Deremo, department service officer for the North Dakota American Legion. The results affect both soldier and family, he said.
"There's a lot of people in these little bitty communities that kind of suffer in silence," he said.
According to Associated Press reports, suicide rates have risen since 2004 because of increasing stress on veterans from long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seven confirmed suicides were reported last month, compared with five a year earlier and an additional 17 cases from January are under investigation, AP reported.
Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are longer than the tours served by veterans of other wars, said David Rehbein, national commander of the American Legion, and the combat is in an urban setting where a native passing by is as likely to be harmless as he is a terrorist. Those stresses may attribute to the suicide rates in younger veterans, he said.
Regardless of the cause, Deremo said the current rates are "not acceptable."
"It just puts a burden on my heart, as a fellow veteran and a Legionnaire, to do something," Deremo said.
Illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain-injury are not new, Deremo said, but the American Legion's reach-out methods are.
"Essentially it's (post-traumatic stress disorder) been around since people have been killing each other," he said.
To connect with younger generations, the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation committee created a Facebook group (called Courage Carries On), Twitter profile (http://twitter.com/CourageCO) and a Web page (www.couragecarrieson.org), said Amy Wieser Willson, deputy public information officer for the North Dakota National Guard.
But the campaign seeks to reach all veterans, Deremo said, so the North Dakota American Legion designed billboards, TV spots and a 30-second video to reach out to veterans of all wars and all ages. The North Dakota Department of the American Legion has provided the funding for the program so far, but the group is also seeking donations, he said.
The awareness efforts are meant to enhance and supplement work already done by Veterans Affairs and other veterans agencies across the state, Willson said. The Courage Carries On campaign materials direct families, friends and veterans themselves to the Veterans Suicide Prevention hotline (800-273-8255) or the state's 211 crisis number, which isn't affiliated with the military. Some veterans may fear contacting the military for help so the 211 number is another option, Deremo said.
In the first part of the campaign, the American Legion is passing out fliers and posters and speaking at the 220 American Legion Posts throughout the state. The faces pictured in the fliers are of actual veterans who have received help because of mental illness, he said.
"They've got the courage to serve and now they've got the courage to call," he said.
The group expects to post its billboards this summer and run its TV spots this fall, he said.
To make a donation to the campaign, send them to North Dakota American Legion, 405 W. Main Ave., Suite 4A, West Fargo, ND, 58078.
For more information, visit www.couragecarrieson.org.
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