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November 23, 2014

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Christmas cards let veterans know they’re not alone during the holidays

Image

Steve Marcus

Second Lt. Jay Bergeon, left, Cadet Master Sgt. Emeli Amtman, center, and Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Faith White pose with holiday cards during a civil air patrol meeting at Bridger Middle School in North Las Vegas Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013. The cadets plan to hand out the holiday cards to veterans at the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital at Nellis Air Force Base on Dec. 23.

Cards for Vets

Faith White holds holiday cards that cadets signed for veterans during a civil air patrol meeting at Bridger Middle School in North Las Vegas Tuesday Dec. 17, 2013. The cadets plan to hand out the holiday cards to veterans at the Mike O'Callaghan Federal Hospital at Nellis Air Force Base on Dec. 23. Launch slideshow »

How to get help

Veterans in need of help during the holidays can call the VA Health Care System 24/7 crisis line number at (800) 273-8255, visit the confidential chat line at veteranscrisisline.net or send a text to 838255.

Jay Bergeon used to love Thanksgiving.

He laughs, even today, as he recalls the many turkey-eating competitions with his grandfather that typically ended with his grandmother chasing them with a spoon. But something changed in him during those 15 months that he spent deployed in southwest Baghdad in 2005-06.

He spent every day in a constant state of hypervigilance wondering where and when the next gunshot or bomb would come from. Four of his friends were killed in the war, including one who died in his arms around Thanksgiving. He saw families slaughtered inside homes and survived multiple explosions.

He returned emotionally detached, with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He spent his first Christmas and Thanksgiving back in the U.S. getting drunk alone in his house to block out the nightmares and pain. The idea of a holiday seemed so meaningless after war.

“You get the feeling where you could be in a roomful of people that you know — a roomful of friends ... and still be the loneliest person there,” Bergeon said.

These days, Bergeon has found solace in his PTSD therapy group, family and cadet squadron. Still, he knows many other veterans don’t have that family or support group. For them, he and his cadet squadron — NV 801 — plan to pass out holiday cards today at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System Medical Center.

“Some of these vets, yeah they have families and everything else, but a lot don’t,” Bergeon said. “We want to do Christmas cards and everything else to let them know they’re not alone.”

The holidays remain one of the most dangerous times for veterans dealing with PTSD and TBI. While Christmas and Thanksgiving are meant to be cheerful, the demands to be social and joyous can be stressful for veterans struggling to deal with their emotions.

It can exacerbate their sense of isolation and make them feel hopeless and helpless, said Paul Frederickson, the suicide prevention coordinator at the VA hospital. As a result, he said the threat of suicide spikes during the holidays, especially for those without family.

Already, the suicide prevention hotline has been active, Frederickson said. In thepast two weeks, the hotline has averaged five to seven calls a day.

“It’s not so much about wanting to die by suicide but about getting rid of the pain they’re unable to deal with because of detachment,” Frederickson said.

Bergeon hopes the cards will help bring the veterans out of their isolation. He came up with the idea after he discovered that a local Cub Scout troop was the only group planning a trip to the hospital during the holidays. He knew what a simple card and thank you from a child could do for a veteran.

“It really gets you when you have a younger kid come up and just grab a hold of you and say, ‘Thank you,’” Bergeon said. “Hearing it from a child has more of an impact.”

In the past two weeks, his 40 cadets have handwritten more than 200 cards. Each one has its own unique message, simple but sincere in a way that only kids can be.

“I just wanted to thank you for your services toward our proud country. Happy holidays, God bless,” reads one card from 13-year-old cadet Chief Master Sgt. Faith White.

The VA hospital will distribute the cards to injured veterans inside, and the cadets will greet others with cards at the front door. PTSD Program Manager Dr. Andrew DiSavino said visits from children around the holidays are special. They can help make veterans who are lonely feel more appreciated.

“A lot of veterans may not respond to me coming up to them, but they have a different kind of emotional response when a child comes up to them,” DiSavino said. “Having a group of kids come in is priceless to them.”

For Bergeon, the holidays remain a difficult time. He doesn’t know if he'll ever regain the carefree joys he once felt during those Thanksgiving eating competitions as a child, but he does know that isolation isn’t the answer.

He hopes these cards can help a fellow veteran feel less alone and perhaps even save a life.

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