NW PA Counties graphicThe Northwest Pennsylvania (NW PA) Veteran Suicide Prevention Program operates on a three-pronged approach involving healthcare providers, community organizations, and Veterans and their families in the 15 counties of NW PA. Because of this focus, we want to share this recent story by VA regarding the work of Operation Vet NOW (OVN). OVN has been a supportive collaborator in the NW PA Veteran Suicide Prevention Program and we are thrilled to help share their efforts with a wider audience.

Read time: 5 minutes

Veterans, service members with Operation Vet NOW compete in sports to support their mental health

VA-healthBy Mike Richman
Communications Specialist, Veterans Experience Office
View original article and additional photos

Operation Vet NOW (OVN) is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring and supporting Veterans and their families. Its mission is to improve the mental health and wellness of those who served in the military through outreach events and programs that connect them to the care and support that they’ve earned.

OVN meets its mission through three distinct projects: the Veterans Village Project, the Fallen Heroes Project and Ambassador Athletes.

OVN VA storyThe Veterans Village Project is OVN’s primary vehicle to create a connection with its Veterans. It’s an outreach event that is planned, funded and managed by OVN, and it brings local and national Veterans organizations together to connect Veterans to help in a welcoming environment. The Fallen Heroes Project is aimed at never forgetting those service members lost to combat, training and suicide. Nearly 400 fallen heroes have been honored since the program began.

Ambassador Athletes are Veterans or active-duty military who compete in pro or amateur sports for mental health support. Currently, there are about 25 Ambassador Athletes, most of whom have been diagnosed with some form of PTSD. They may also be experiencing depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol addiction.

OVN vet villageOVN seeks Ambassador Athletes at all levels and strongly prefers they compete in an organized competition series or league. For example, some of the dirt bike racers compete in a regional points series. OVN staff make a lot of connections with athletes at smaller regional events, so they have a lot in that category. “We also listen to their plans as an athlete, so they could be very new to a sport,” said Operation Vet NOW Team Leader Tony Aubrey, a co-founder of the organization. “Also, some just compete in various high-level events. An example is our triathletes, one of whom competes in Ironman events in Texas and New Mexico.”

Veterans can apply to become an Ambassador Athlete via OVN’s website. Staff members review the application and determine if they are eligible to be part of the program. If so, it is reviewed by OVN’s board members.

“The process is informal,” Aubrey said. “Our goal is to not intimidate or deter the Veteran from wanting to engage. We are small and have a limited capacity, so we do not widely promote it because we want to keep it manageable. OVN’s focus is getting into as many sports categories as possible and geographically maximizing reach. Many Veterans may not become ambassadors, but they can connect with an ambassador. All ambassadors are open to helping them in their sport.

OVN logo“Ultimately, our ambassadors are Veterans we directly support,” he added. “We have seen them grow communities of Veterans in their areas and sports and are a symbol of positivity for Veterans and active-duty military members. Amazing to us is the Veterans that want to help but are unsure how. What we do is simple and understandable. The acceptance of this model program by our Veterans has been amazing, and this is with minimal promotion. In their words, to be part of something that supports them as an athlete and a Veteran, pay attention to their interests and be there when they may simply need someone to talk to is life changing for them.”

Here are profiles of five OVN Ambassador Athletes. Each athlete addressed whether Operation Vet NOW has helped them with their mental health challenges and if so how. The athletes provided the diagnoses, which in some cases were not determined by VA.

Sean Lally

Military Branch: Army
Years in the military: 3
Mental health challenges: Diagnosed with PTSD
Sport: Professional MMA Fighter
“Joining OVN has been a great step for my journey with sobriety and the fight against mental demons that PTSD creates. When I first started in my fight to become sober, it was mostly for myself. Now that I have time in sobriety, I feel a greater commitment to return to others what was offered to me during my darkest times. This includes support, community and a network of Veterans open to sharing their struggle and providing hope and guidance. This is everything that OVN provides to our Veteran community. I’m proud to be an OVN ambassador. Its mission is vital to our community.”

James West

Military Branch: Marines
Years in the military: 5
Mental health challenge: Diagnosed with PTSD and TBI
Sport: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Brown Belt (amateur but competes nationally)
“Working with OVN has been great. They’ve helped support me in my pursuit of excellence in martial arts. It’s wonderful to be part of an organization that’s dedicated to helping Veterans and the team of athletes who suffer from the same issues as myself. More than helping me personally, OVN has helped me help others to show other Veterans different pathways to mental stability through sport and exercise. I’ve had more conversations with other Veterans and their families at competitions and in gyms all across New England, exposing them to the programs dedicated to getting them healthy. OVN is doing great things to let people know there’s help out there and people who care.”

Johnny Mathis

Military branch: Marines
Years in the military: 11
Mental health challenge: Diagnosed with anxiety, stress and depression
Sport: Motocross (amateur)
“Working with Operation Vet Now has helped me overcome my challenges. I feel like working with OVN I have more of a purpose and the ability to help others. As most Veterans know, getting out of the military is a complete shocker of emotions. You feel a sense of freedom, but at the same time you feel like a big part of your life has ended. Being an OVN athlete and racing amateur motocross, I’ve connected with other Veterans and civilians and have filled that gap. I have the support and freedom to not only help myself but help others and grow our foundation. One big thing coming up next year will be an American Heroes national level race in Redding, California. This event will be a place for Veterans and first responders to come together and grow our support network to continue to battle the demons some of us face. If it weren’t for OVN, I don’t think I would have broken out of my shell, and I wouldn’t have the drive to put together races like this and events to grow our community.”

Craig Rundell

Military branch: Army
Years in the military: 26
Mental health challenge: TBI/PTSD (official diagnosis from an IED attack in June 2005)
Sport: Professional multi-gun (3-Gun) competition shooting and amateur motocross/amateur off-road racing
“Becoming an athlete with Operation Vet Now has drastically helped me focus on my PTSD/TBI therapy. OVN provides me an avenue to focus my attention on training and competing in sports. This year, I’ve raced in over eight motocross and off-road events in many states including Utah, Washington and Kansas. I’ve also competed in two national multi-gun events in Utah. Because of their support, I’ve been able to represent OVN in front of hundreds of participants and spectators this year. The main contributor to my success with PTSD and TBI is having the ability with OVN to travel and compete, and also having the ability to share the mission of OVN with hundreds of people and Veterans that need help to cope with their issues. That, to me, as an athlete with OVN, is priceless, as is sharing the mission and helping fellow Veterans get the help they need and letting them know we have their back. That’s the biggest impact OVN has had on my personal recovery. I would not have challenged myself in the same manner as I have without the support of OVN.”

Liz Carmouche

Military branch: Marines
Years in the military: 5
Mental health challenge: PTSD and stress; mental diagnosis of PTSD
Sport: Professional MMA Fighter (current women’s world flyweight champion)
“My participation [with OVN] has helped aid in my mental health. It’s challenged me to be more aware because of the accountability that OVN has given me. It’s also helped me recognize the struggles that Veterans are going through and has helped me feel like I am not alone.”

Looking to Get Involved?

Whether you identify as a healthcare provider, community organization, or Veteran, there are several opportunities through the NW PA Veteran Suicide Prevention Program and PERU to connect to resources, participate in educational training, and promote harm reduction strategies. We are actively recruiting healthcare and community partners to work with us in meeting our goals and objectives. To learn more, visit the program website at theresilientveteran.org.

Need Help? Know Someone Who Does? Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat. Both are free and confidential. You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor in your area.

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