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Veteran’s death spurs creation of a peer mentor program to curb suicide

Mike Turpin, Marine Corps veteran, plays with his daughter Regan during a Project Sanctuary retreat at the Grand Park Community Recreation Center on October 2, 2017 in Fraser, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“From the paper standpoint, we’d checked all the boxes and it looked like we’d done enough. But we didn’t.”


Infinite Hero provided a $100,000 grant to launch Walton’s Warriors last year, and will provide another $60,000 grant this year to continue the important work Project Sanctuary is doing in with this program.


Bonnie Walton called Heather Ehle first. She needed someone who would understand but wasn’t too close. She needed someone who could help her find a way to tell her four sons that their father had killed himself.

Her husband, Brian Walton, seemed to have been on the right track. He was in a follow-up program at Project Sanctuary, a therapeutic military-family retreat. He had been seen at the Veteran Affairs hospital. He had a therapist and he had medication.

Matt Davis, who is currently in the Air Force, jumps into the foam pit at the Grand Park Community Recreation Center on October 2, 2017 in Fraser, Colorado. Davis, and his family are on a retreat, with Project Sanctuary, for veterans. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“From the paper standpoint, we’d checked all the boxes and it looked like we’d done enough,” said Ehle, the president and founder of Project Sanctuary. “But we didn’t.”

Ehle said she never wanted to receive another call like the one Bonnie Walton made in March 2016. The veterans involved in Project Sanctuary were distraught by Brian’s death, having never lost someone from the retreat before. They wanted to do something so it would never happen again.

Mike Turpin, Marine Corps veteran, plays with his daughter Regan during a Project Sanctuary retreat at the Grand Park Community Recreation Center on October 2, 2017 in Fraser, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

So they created Walton’s Warriors, a 10-month, peer-mentorship program funded with a $100,000 grant from the Infinite Hero Foundation that teaches veterans how to mentor their friends and figure out how to best manage their own mental health.

“Everyone has these wonderful ideas of how we’re going to stem this suicide epidemic and I can’t fix it all,” Ehle said. “But if I train the veterans to fix their friends, then I think we might start making a difference.”

In 2014, the risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans compared to adults who had not served in the military, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. An average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day that year, although Ehle thinks the number is low. The suicide rate is especially high in the western U.S. and rural areas. In 2014, 178 veterans in Colorado took their own lives.

Bonnie Walton met Brian on a blind date in 2003, before he deployed to Iraq for the first time with the U.S Army infantry. Brian was a big guy — 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 200 pounds — good-looking, funny and had a motorcycle. The two hit it off right away, not spending a day apart except for when he was deployed.

After the first tour, he came back a little different. He was always “go-go-go” and would be easily startled, taking a couple of days to recover, Bonnie Walton said. After the second deployment, he knew he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mark Miller, an Army veteran, lies in a foam pit at the Grand Park Community Recreation Center on October 2, 2017 in Fraser, Colorado. Davis, and his family are on a retreat, with Project Sanctuary, for veterans. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Ehle said veterans can experience traumatic brain injuries from improvised explosive devices, insomnia, personality changes and massive headaches on top of PTSD. They may be hyper-vigilant, returning to bases that are regularly bombed or seeing children blown up, but their brains don’t get a second to process, heal or relax.

But those who do kill themselves are not ending the pain, they’re just spreading it to their family, Ehle said.

“He thought we would be better off without him,” Bonnie Walton said. “It couldn’t have been further from the truth.”

Ehle said veterans want to talk about what they go through. It may not be with a commanding officer or a VA therapist, but they will in the right community and setting. That’s part of why Walton’s Warriors works.

The program received its funding in June 2016 and kicked off in February. Veterans learn how to help their friends. The peer-mentor program is meant to go hand in hand with therapy. Mentors are a text or phone call away. They can meet up for coffee — and not just once a week like a therapist appointment. And, importantly, they get it because they’ve been there.

A key part of the program is self-care for the peer mentors so the work doesn’t overwhelm them. Additionally, peer mentors will check in on each other, especially after someone has just handled a particularly tense situation.

There’s a flipside to this story, Ehle said. There are people who come through the trauma. They do better and show that there is both hope and help out there, she said. Now, those veterans are the ones running Project Sanctuary and Walton’s Warriors.

“I think he’d be happy about it,” Bonnie Walton said, thinking about how Brian might regard Walton’s Warriors. A peer who understood it could have helped him. “He loved his soldiers. He was always a soldier’s soldier.”

Brian Walton’s ashes were spread at the Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake where Project Sanctuary hosts some of its retreats. That was the last place the Walton family was whole, Bonnie Walton said.

“I remember sitting on the back porch with him after the classes, looking at stars,” she said. “We were at peace there, at that moment.”

Nick Psaki and his wife Rebecca, volunteers at Project Sanctuary, cleanup after breakfast during a retreat at YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch on October 2, 2017 in Granby, Colorado. Nick, a 20-year Army veteran, teaches a finance class during the Project Sanctuary retreat for veterans. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

By DANIKA WORTHINGTON | dworthington@denverpost.com | The Denver Post


SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Second Wind Fund: thesecondwindfund.org. Links students to mental health professionals and pays for up to 12 counseling sessions.

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