New resource opens for veterans, families in Polson
POLSON – Veterans are working on a mission to help prevent suicide among their comrades and support families with a new innovative resource called RIVER or the Rural Institute for Veterans Education and Research.
RIVER opened in Polson at 50183 U.S. Highway 93 about six months ago across from Flathead Lake and next to the Bayview Inn and A&W Restaurant. Local veteran Justin Blevins took on the job as outreach coordinator at the institute. Angel Blevins, his wife, also works at the institute to support spouses of veterans. The program is paid for with Veteran Education Benefits.
The program helps veterans reintegrate into civilian through peer counseling and outdoor activities among other things. The focus of the program is on preventing suicide, but people don’t need to be in crisis to get involved.
The idea is that if people participate in the program by getting out in nature, talking to other families and veterans, and finding support within their community, it can help mitigate the issues many veterans and their families face.
A Montana veteran started the first RIVER program in Missoula about five years ago due to a lack of suicide prevention and support for veterans in the state, Blevins said. “It was created by veterans for veterans.”
The program was also created in response to the high rate of veteran suicide in Montana. According to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Missoula County has the highest rate of veteran suicides in the state with 18 deaths between January of 2014 and March of 2016. Lake County ranks fourth in the state with eight deaths during the same period.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that the risk for suicide is 22 percent higher among veterans when compared to U.S. non-veteran adults.
Justin said Lake County also has a high number of veterans for a small population, making the institute a valuable resource for the community.
RIVER offers many programs free of charge for veterans, families or people who just want to support the program including recreational therapy with fun outdoor activities, pain management programs, service animal training, small business ownership, training for renewable energy technology, wilderness first response training, and more.
RIVER provides crisis intervention, paperwork assistance for benefits, peer counseling, help locating resources, and even just a cup of coffee. “Veterans can come in and share war stories or just use the WIFI if they need it,” Justin said.
Participants can earn certification or licenses to further a career like an Emergency Medical Responders license while also participating in outdoor recreation or recreational therapy.
What makes this program unique is that it utilizes an outdoor approach in helping Veterans and families with activities like fishing, rafting, boating, snowshoeing, camping and skiing among others. Blevins said he organizes several outdoor trips each month and works with the Missoula branch to offer more opportunities.
“Many people keep their personal issues bottled up, needing a shared experience or task to establish the necessary trust to confide and seek needed help. Others simply need the recreational activity to help them accept or move past their physical or mental disability,” RIVER states in information about their approach.
Justin said soldiers often come home from service and are told by the military that they’ve done “a good job,” but they don’t know what to do next with their lives. “I felt like I lost my purpose when I came home,” he said.
Blevins attended school in Charlo when he was a kid. He enjoyed the outdoors, so when he was 18, he figured the Army would be a good fit. In 2005, he enlisted. He was sent to Iraq and then Afghanistan. He finished up his service in 2015 with some medical problems and physical pain. The experience changed him, and he started thinking about suicide.
“You’re taught your whole life that it’s wrong to think about suicide, so you believe it’s wrong, and when the day comes and you think about it, you feel like a hypocrite,” he said.
During his darkest moment, he contemplated suicide. The thought of leaving his daughter behind and what that would do to her made him decide to reach out for help.
“People need to know that it’s not a weakness to get help,” he said. “It takes courage.”
He wants to change the stigma associated with talking about suicide so that people feel like it’s okay to say something if they are having a problem.
“It’s better to talk about it and deal with it,” he said. “Make a call, talk to someone you served with, go to a local vets program, just reach out.”
Justin discovered a pain management program through RIVER and he decided to try it out. “It really helped,” he said. He found out the institute did a lot more than pain management, so he signed up for more programs. He had such a positive experience that he wanted to help other soldiers, and he eventually became the outreach coordinator.
Justin’s wife Angel understands what it’s like to watch a spouse experience military service related issues. She said having her own support group made a big difference, and she wants to offer that to families.
“If people need to come in and talk to someone that knows what they are going through, we are here,” Angel said. She added that anyone is also welcome to come in if they need help figuring out how to find resources for a veteran.
Blevins said RIVER works with other veteran organizations to create the best outcomes. The institute also supports other civilian programs. They helped the suicide prevention group Your Life Matters organize a breakfast to honor veterans earlier this year and provide suicide prevention information.
“Suicide prevention is a community effort,” he said. “The more we can do the better.”
For more information, call RIVER in Polson at 406-319-2727 and leave a message, or contact the program through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is riverofchange.org. The program can also be found on Facebook.
The Veteran Crisis Line for Veterans, families, and friends needing confidential support 24 hours a day is 1-800-273-8255. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has another help line comprised of combat veterans at 1-877-WAR-VETS.