LITTLE ROCK, Ark – One of the top priorities for the Arkansas Department of Veteran’s Affairs is preventing suicide among vets. It’s also a priority for one local veteran who’s been in that dark place twice and lived to tell the story.
Mikel Brooks remembers being at his lowest point. The Army National Guard veteran was disabled, homeless, addicted to pills and meth and suicidal.
“I went from a Purple Heart, Valor, decorated combat veteran that I’m very proud of to what I was. Living in my truck, doing drugs and just hopeless,” Brooks recalled.
And that’s when he tried, for a second time, to end it all with a drug overdose.
“I was unconscious on the floor. I was frozen to it. It was February, I was cold. I don’t know how I didn’t freeze to death,” Brooks explained. “I remember thinking at that time. I really don’t want to die right now. I wish somebody would come in here and save me.”
But something happened when he woke up 23 hours later.
“I just got up and was like, ‘I’m done. I’m done with this. I want to do something different,’” Brooks said.
That something different is called We Are The 22, representing the 22 veterans lost each day to suicide. Brooks created the organization in 2017, giving veterans a chance to go through training to help other vets.
The group has 70 responders around Arkansas and are adding more to the list. Clint Oswald, a captain with WAT-22, is one of them.
“Being able to share with them your story, and hear theirs, and put them together, and know that when you leave you helped somebody,” Oswald said of the benefits to his work.
Official data won’t be available for 24 months, but staff at the Arkansas VA say that during the COVID-19 pandemic risk factors for suicide increased, leading to a higher prediction of suicide rates.
The VA has worked to reduce veteran suicides in Arkansas, along with WAT-22, because calls for help are always being made.
“I went on a few that were pretty intense during COVID,” Oswald recalled.
Out of 430 calls since 2017, WAT-22 has only lost one veteran to suicide. While that number may seem small by most standards, for responder Chris Fields, that’s one too many.
“It’s turned into what motivates me every day,” Fields explained, “because I don’t want to lose another.”
The new recruits who recently went through training with current WAT-22 responders will leave armed with a trauma kit, Narcan and a bullet proof vest, all tools they may need in potentially volatile circumstances.
“Let’s face it, we’re going into crisis situations voluntarily and we understand the risk,” Brooks said.
In addition to the work of WAT-22, there are many people trying to help veterans who are struggling, including the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs.
If you know a veteran dealing with emotional health issues, call 1-855-WeAreThe22 (1-855-932-7384). You can also call the Veterans Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255. You can also learn more about the group and see how to help at WeAreThe22.org.