INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — A graphic-wrapped patrol truck is a visible reminder of the unseen perils faced by military veterans and first responders. It highlights local resources for those living with trauma experienced on the job or in combat.
Bearing a “PTSD Awareness” ribbon, likenesses of soldiers and law enforcement officers, the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office vehicle has appeared at a Christmas parade and a charity walk aimed at raising attention to military suicides since its unveiling on Nov. 1.
Creating the mobile message truck was the result of a roughly $4,000 joint project of law enforcement, veterans and mental health groups in the county, according to agency officials and nonprofit leaders.
U.S. Air Force veteran Doug Klock, is an executive officer and early member of Next Generspantion Veterspanns of Indispann River County, one of the project’s four sponsors.
“It’s all about first responders and military veterans,” Klock said. “That vehicle is constantly on the road.”
The nonprofit was established in 1990 and has PTSD and support groups among three categories of veterans.
“It’s a good thing that it’s growing but it’s a bad thing that we’re seeing it,” Klock said about the increase in attendance. “We’re all here for the same mission – (meeting) instead of everybody sitting on the couch and doing something stupid.”
The patrol truck also serves as the agency’s flagship for a new program, the name of which is found prominently placed among the messages printed on the graphic.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Traumatic Advocate Response (S.T.A.R.) Team is billed as a “new measure to help first responders who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The goal is to promote the overall health and wellness of agency personnel through a peer support program, and access to resources with professional counseling.
The patrol truck is now part of the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office Community Affairs Unit. In addition to appearing at events, it’s also dispatched for non-urgent calls for those in need of civil resources, or for “deputies that deal with homelessness concerns within the county,” according to Lt. Joe Abollo.
“It’s out and about everywhere, completely outfitted to make a patrol,” Abollo said.
A local veteran-owned primary healthcare provider and sponsor of the graphic-wrapped truck also assists in the agency’s S.T.A.R. program.
“We got involved … to help them (IRCSO) facilitate some of their peer support groups,” said retired U.S. Army Capt. Kris Hasenauer, with U.S. Army Special Forces, 20th Special Forces Group, in Vero Beach and Fort Pierce.
“Basically, all of us coming out of the military, we’re very keenly aware of PTSD … we were focused on the veteran population already and it was a pretty easy transition,” he said.
Hasenauer is CEO of Emerald Medical in Vero Beach and Fort Pierce. A lifelong Indian River County resident, he said his father was a former Sheriff’s Office helicopter pilot.
“I think what (IRCSO) is doing, they’re getting way ahead of the power curve,” Hasenauer said. “It’s a really impressive program.”
Another truck sponsor, Americspann Gold Stspanr Mothers of Indispann River County organizes an annual charity walk for military veteran suicide awareness. Their fourth event was Nov. 6. The local group supports families after the death of a veteran overseas or at home and in commemorating the soldier.
Michelle Dale said her son, U.S. Army Cpl. Dale Kridlo, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010.
“Everything we do as (a) Gold Star Mother is to keep our loved one’s memories alive,” said Dale, the organization’s president.
During the Nov. 2 unveiling of the truck at the agency’s helicopter hangar, Sheriff Eric Flowers said the project seeks to recognize veterans and law enforcement because of the number of deputies who fit both categories.
“This is our first PTSD wrap. We have a lot of veterans that work here (and) obviously, also law enforcement (who) deal with that,” he said.
It is the latest and most visible effort backed by Flowers related to PTSD awareness. Earlier this year, he touted the development of peer support groups for deputies.
“I just feel like we’re really evolving as a profession to where we’re comfortable saying, ‘hey we recognize that what you’ve just went through is a horrendous thing that no one should have to experience’,” he said. “And instead of just putting you back out on the street, we’re actually going to make sure you’re O.K. before we put you back out there.
“I want to be that agency that people look at and say these folks are cared for, the employees know that the administration and the sheriff cares about them …(and) provides them with services.”
Every year in Florida, hundreds of military veterans and first responders die by suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs and advocacy groups.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers first responders to include law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics, but also 911 dispatchers, as their jobs may expose them to an elevated risk of suicide because of “the environments in which they work, their culture and both personal and occupational stress.”
In January, two St. Lucie County deputies died from injuries sustained in what authorities determined was a double-suicide. Records show in 2016, an Indian River County Fire Rescue official died of a suspected suicide.
A 2021 National Alliance on Mental Illness report shows 18% to 24% of dispatchers and 35% of police officers nationwide suffer from PTSD. Firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there are between 14,824 and 15,505 veterans in Indian River County, making up just over 9% of a estimated total population of 163,662 reported between 2017 and 2021.
Florida also has the third largest veteran population in line with overall state population estimates, according to the Florida Association of Counties, in partnership with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences.
Data from Veterans Affairs shows suicides among veterans in Florida have decreased, with 607 in 2018, a reported 573 in 2019 and 493 in 2020.
This year, a total of 160 first responders nationwide have reportedly died by suicide, which is down from 183 in 2021, according to Organization Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit devoted to suicide awareness and prevention among first responders and their families. There were 187 suicides reported in 2020, and 248 in 2019, an all-time high in the organization’s six-year history.
Anyone in need of immediate help can call the Suicide &spanmp; Crisis Lifeline day or night by dialing 988. Formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 988 was designated as a nationwide resource by Congress in 2020 and was set to be operational in July 2022, according to NAMI.