‘We’re going to do it for Scott’ – Working to help veterans with mental health challenges

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 06-05-2023 9:03 AM

Bill Kelly became the executive director at the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center without the usual elation associated with such a promotion.

The weight of the role settled heavily on his shoulders, as it came in the wake of devastating news.

The sudden loss of his friend and colleague Scott Forbes, of Bow, left a void in the non-profit organization that Kelly now had the responsibility to fill. Stepping into this position became a duty to honor the memory of his friend and make a difference in the lives of struggling veterans.

“I loved his enthusiasm for the organization,” Kelly said about the way Forbes would get involved in cookouts and fun events for veterans. “He was the main cheerleader for this place.”

Forbes was known as a successful, fun-loving person. He was a great storyteller, and people listened.

He openly talked about how he reached out to the center for help in 2016 when he was struggling to make ends meet. He swiftly became an active and valuable member of the veterans community, offering assistance at the food pantry, providing rent support to fellow veterans and aiding in accessing services from the VA. He started as a case manager and, in 2021, he became the executive director.

“It’s like he walked through the door and never left,” Kelly said.

Forbes recruited Kelly to work for the outreach center 18 months ago, and Kelly became the organization’s chief operating officer. Forbes was a dedicated, dynamic leader.

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“He would work day and night,” said his fiancée, Rachel Hagen. “If a veteran had a crisis, even if it was the weekend or a holiday, he handled it. He would go in person.”

Forbes, who had moved to Bow in June 2022, had an incredible resume serving both his country and his community. He retired as a Master Sergeant in the Air Force after serving 22 years, including multiple combat tours to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Massachusetts, where he lived most of his life, he was elected to serve on the Melrose City Council and eventually became its president. He was an active member of the Melrose Veterans Advisory Board and the city’s VFW Post.

“That would have been a great story if it ended there, but we know it didn’t,” Kelly said. “It highlights for me the critical component that we see all the time, which is mental health, self-isolating and not asking for help.”

Forbes died by suicide in early March – an event no one saw coming.

“People really feel isolated, especially if they are not doing well,” Kelly said. “Veterans are very cagey about reaching out for help.”

Kelly, who served in the Coast Guard from 1987 until 2011 and retired as a Captain, said he’s still processing his friend’s death.

“I intellectually, I understand what happened, but emotionally, I’m still not over it,” he said.

“He got to the end of the road, where he didn’t reach out for help. He became an unreachable soul, and that was the end of it.”

Reaching out for help

David Gambone, a Massachusetts native and Army veteran, experienced the challenges of transitioning from a structured and disciplined military life to civilian society firsthand. He described it as “being hit by the door on your way out.” The transition leaves many veterans feeling lost and struggling with their mental well-being. Gambone often struggled to temper his expectations, let go of his mission-first mentality and lower his guard.

“There’s a lot of answers on paper that the military gives to say that they are solving these problems,” said Gambone. “But when you put those policies and aspects into effect, it doesn’t give anywhere near or yield anywhere near the proper result.”

Motivated by the loss of 11 friends and co-workers to military suicide and his firsthand experience with veterans’ mental health challenges, Gambone founded Minus 22 in 2021. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to eliminating suicide among military personnel and veterans.

“Really having the proper resources and channels once you get out of the military is pretty tough already,” said Gambone. “When you couple that with the normal going-ons of everyday life, it can create a whirlwind of things for veterans in this country and unfortunately leads some of them to make ultimate decisions that end up not solving their trauma but passing it on to everybody else.”

Nearly 250 veterans from New Hampshire died by suicide between 2015 and 2020, according to a recent report by the State Suicide Prevention Council and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Hampshire that uses data from the Veterans Administration.

Nationally, the number of lives lost is alarming – nearly 17 die each day, according to the Veterans Administration’s annual report on veteran suicide prevention.

Throughout the country, a significant number of veterans with limited incomes find themselves in dire straits, including the struggle to acquire basic necessities such as suitable housing, regular meals, legal and counseling services and employment opportunities. These obstacles further compound their existing mental health burdens, making the journey to recovery even more arduous.

Those are the exact issues that Veterans Northeast Outreach Center tries to solve. Primarily it offers housing to low-income veterans, either in properties it owns or by working directly with landlords. The center currently houses 60 veterans in eight properties in Merrimack Valley.

Once the housing issue is stabilized, veterans can focus on other issues like mental health or substance abuse. As part of its mission to help any veteran or veteran family in northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, the center will provide assistance for car repairs, free supplies from the food pantry, and help arrange counseling services.

Toll on families

The impact of veteran suicide extends beyond an individual, with far-reaching consequences that affect the lives of those connected with them.

Forbes had a loving family, including two grown children from his first marriage. Forbes and Hagen were scheduled to be married this fall.

Hagen, who is a practicing psychotherapist, has since been grappling with internal turmoil, constantly replaying the events of that day in March in her mind, wondering if she missed any signs or overlooked something crucial.

“I’ve had an internal battle,” said Hagen. “How do I balance being his partner and a clinician? So you can imagine the amount of guilt I feel.”

Throughout their time together, Hagen said she supported Forbes in his battle with mental health issues, attentively paying attention to his well-being.

Whenever Forbes insisted that he was fine, Hagen would gesture to a tattoo on her forearm that bore the words, “I’m fine.” However, with a simple twist of her arm, the tattoo transformed into a plea that read, “Save me.”

“This is my reminder that you have to look deeper,” Hagen explained pointing to the tattoo. “Don’t take everything at the surface level; it’s all about protecting your comfortability or your image because it’s really uncomfortable to let someone see that you’re not OK.”

Hagen, having witnessed the struggles Forbes faced, urged everyone who knows a veteran, even if they are not a therapist, to trust their instincts when they notice someone they know behaving differently. Such awareness and intervention can potentially save lives.

“We need to have conversations, veterans need to have a place where they are heard,” said Hagen. ”We have to know what we are doing to our soldiers and how we support them and they come back. Silence will never be the answer.”

Moving forward

Forbes started the first golf tournament to benefit Veterans Northeast Outreach Center last year. Forbes loved to golf, and the event was a smashing success.

This year, the Scott M. Forbes Memorial Golf Tournament, held Monday at the Merrimack Valley Golf Club in Methuen, Mass., will bear his name.

A statement on VNEOC’s Facebook paid tribute to Forbes after his death.

“His dedication to Veterans Northeast Outreach Center Inc. is a shining example of what service after service looks like. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on. I will say his name.”

Kelly expects to say a few words in his friend’s memory.

“The concept of saying their names, it keeps their memory alive,” Kelly said. “That’s the message – just don’t forget.”

In the coming weeks, the center’s headquarters in an old church on Reed Street in Haverhill, which has been closed for renovations, will reopen and hold a memorial for Forbes. It will also offer new group sessions to discuss suicide and mental health assistance.

“If you are a veteran in need, or you care for a veteran, we are here for you,” the organization says on its website.

In his first tribute to Forbes, Kelly didn’t use the word suicide. Now he talks about it openly. People need to know in order to for others to get the help they need and learn from this loss. Kelly said he’s started to open up about his own struggles with mental health.

“I tell people he committed suicide,” Kelly said. “There was something he was still dealing with, even a successful person like him.”

Kelly is determined to make sure his friend’s death was not in vain.

“It focused us. We are on a mission that we are going to complete,” he said. “We’re going to do it for Scott.”

If you need help

Veterans: To connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder anytime day or night, dial 988 then Press 1.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

VNOEC: To donate to the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center, go to vneoc4vets.org.

Minus 22: To donate to the Minus 22 organization, go to minus22.org.

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