By Brian Hiro
William Felty (right) is a Marine veteran and Master of Social Work graduate of Cal State San Marcos who’s helping bring to campus an Arts & Lectures event about veterans and mental health. He’s pictured with (left to right) Steven Sutherland, a CSUSM senior and Air Force vet; Sara Correll, a podcast producer who will moderate a panel at the event; and Marilyn Huerta, a CSUSM communications specialist who’s facilitating the event with Felty, Correll and Shaina Richardson, an aide to San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond.
The Facebook page for the organization Veterans Crisis Outreach contains some alarming statistics, numbers that keep William Felty up at night:
- Military suicides are at their highest rate in 10 years;
- 20% of suicides nationally are committed by veterans;
- 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then there’s the clincher, the one that Felty essentially has turned into his greatest cause in life: On average, more than 20 veterans take their own life every day.
“And I believe that number is lower than the true number of veterans who die by suicide due to overdose deaths, car accident deaths, poor tracking of veterans’ status after death, and so on,” Felty said.
A Marine veteran who saw combat in Iraq and a recent graduate of Cal State San Marcos’ Master of Social Work program, Felty co-founded Veterans Crisis Outreach (VCO) in 2016. That was around the same time he started doing 22 pushups a day – the number is based on an outdated Veterans Affairs study on vet suicides – to raise awareness of the issue (he’s now up to almost 1,100 consecutive days).
Felty is constantly seeking a bigger audience for his urgent message, and he hopes that later this month he’ll draw his biggest one yet. On Sept. 23, VCO – in partnership with CSUSM and the County of San Diego – will present an Arts & Lectures event titled “The Power of a Story: Building Resiliency for Veterans Through Community and Conversations.”
The program will begin at 6 p.m. (reception at 5) in the USU Ballroom. Tickets are $10 for community members, $5 for faculty, staff and alumni, and free for students, service members and veterans.
“With this forum, my hope is that more folks will know how to support our veterans and their families and be willing to get involved to be there for them,” Felty said. “I want to mobilize the community to address the veteran suicide crisis locally with the hopes that we can then encourage and support other communities to do so as well.”
“The Power of a Story” is an outgrowth of a podcast of the same name hosted by Sara Correll, who met Felty and another veteran named Joe Hudak in 2016 and decided to use her platform to spotlight issues surrounding veterans and mental health. The trio founded VCO that year, and over the next couple of years, they held several forums bringing together community members, resource providers and experts in the field.
In February, Felty invited Correll and three other veterans to speak in his social work class taught by professor Jacky Thomas, whereupon the initiative caught the attention of Marilyn Huerta, a communications specialist in the College of Education, Health and Human Services.
Huerta is not a veteran, but she’s steeped in the military life. Her father is a Vietnam War veteran who served for 20 years in the Air Force, her husband served in the Marines, and two of her four children enlisted in the military – a son in the Marines and a daughter in the Coast Guard.
Huerta also is pursuing a Master of Sociological Practice degree at CSUSM to fit her advocacy, community work and passion to support the military culture, and her research focuses on art healing for veterans. She is now helping to grow VCO, and as the former coordinator of the Arts & Lectures program, she led the effort to bring “The Power of a Story” to campus.
“I am a daughter, granddaughter, sister, spouse, mother, niece and cousin of veterans. How could I not try to be a solution to this crisis?” Huerta said. “I don’t have to be a veteran myself to say that the military is the culture I most connect with and our veterans and military service members are my family. I cannot turn a blind eye to this. I cannot pretend it doesn’t exist and stop advocating to make a difference.”
During the reception hour before the Sept. 23 program, more than 30 resource providers will be on hand offering employment and volunteer opportunities, mental health-related training and other ways for attendees to help the military and veteran community.
One of the first speakers will be Jim Desmond, the supervisor of the San Diego County district that includes San Marcos, and a Navy veteran.
“Mental health is one of the biggest issues that we are focusing on at the county, and veteran suicide is a national public health issue that must be addressed,” Desmond said. “Nearly one-third of the county’s population is related to the military, and they don’t live in a vacuum. They live with us, in our community. So we need to mobilize as a community to support our armed service members, veterans and their families.”
The highlight of “The Power of a Story” will be a panel moderated by Correll and featuring several veterans who will tell their stories about building resiliency from bouts with PTSD and suicidal thoughts.
“The efforts of this forum should bring a real and lasting impact to the folks who attend,” Felty said, “which will likely reduce the number of veterans who contemplate, attempt or take their own life, suffering alone or in silence here in the county.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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