'Often, it's not their military experience': Local man serving struggling veterans says we can all help

AUBURN, Wash. - A local man on a mission to help struggling veterans says all of us can get involved.

Q13 News met Rod Wittmier on Monday in Auburn, a city that erected a Vietnam War Memorial at Les Gove Park just this year.

The recently erected memorial proudly displays the names of Vietnam veterans both dead and alive.

“It makes me want to know the story behind it, who are they,” Wittmier said.

Wittmier is an Army veteran.

He did not serve in Vietnam, but his mission instead is to serve other veterans. That calling came when the Veterans Administration released suicide rates for the first time in 2008.

“They had released 18 a day - that veterans were taking their lives at that rate - that just hit my heart and I stood up and said 'not in my country,'” Wittmier said.

So he founded the National Alliance To End Veteran Suicide, and what he’s learned about veterans taking their lives is this:

“Very often, it’s not about their military experience,” Wittmier said.

Wittmier says many times the internal struggles for a veteran started at a young age and that trauma in combat would bring it out to the surface.

“We found that around age 4 and maybe 13 is where trauma began and what it actually did is, it actually branded them with the belief that they are not good enough,” Wittmier said.

Wittmier says many veterans are having emotional breakthroughs during their free workshops called Operation Veteran Freedom held about every six weeks across Puget Sound.

“Progress has definitely been made our veteran navigators are seeing that,” Wittmier said.

His group will also connect veterans with education and the VA for benefits. The VA has been criticized over the years for not helping veterans in a timely manner but Wittmier says things are improving.

“There is a collaboration happening that never happened before, so the VA is really realizing that they can’t solve it on their own - it takes a team,” Wittmier said.

Wittmier says that team includes the community.

He says anyone can help a struggling veteran by helping them find a cause to give back to.

“You just raised their self-esteem and their value and they will help you and become outward bound who else can I help, it is magical,” Wittmier said.

So the next time you see a struggling veteran, help them find a purpose. It could be as simple as asking for help or getting them connected to a project nearby. That way Wittmier says they feel connected to their community.

The next Operation Veteran Freedom workshops will be held Friday in Bremerton and Saturday in Puyallup.

To register you can go to www.na2evs.org/ovf.

Wittmier says his organization also does many other events through the year, including Blankets for Hope, now in its ninth year.

The group is asking people to donate new socks and undergarments, blankets, coats, hats, gloves and sleeping bags for homeless vets.

The event starts Dec. 15 at the Krispy Kreme parking lot at the Tacoma Mall.

Volunteers will be there to gather your donations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.