"It was tough sledding,” said Bill Smullen, Clear Path for Veterans CEO. “It was a very difficult period."
Smullen, serving in the US Army during the Vietnam War, was worth it.
"I felt every day that I was making a difference and was giving of myself to an important cause,” said Smullen.
It’s a sentiment shared by many military members, but when it's time to go home:
"When you take off that uniform, you take off also a commitment to something you lived for every day,” said Smullen. “You lose a sense of worth."
Which Smullen believes is contributing to the record high suicide rate among active duty personnel.
The Department of Defense says 541 members ended their lives in 2018, mostly males under 30. They say many factors play a role, including relationships, financial problems and poor life skills.
"We have to fix that,” said Smullen. “We have to do better. That's what Clear Path is doing. We're trying to make people feel they have not only someone who cares about them but they indeed can make a difference."
Clear Path for Veterans' mission is support their journey home through programs. The organization serves a free lunch every Wednesday to service members and their families.
"I think isolation is a contributing factor,” said Christopher Griffin, the Clear Path for Veterans culinary director and executive chef. “I think just being around people that are like-minded or being able to talk to people that speaks your language and maybe has gone through some of the things you’ve gone through. I think that’s the biggest piece of it."
They can also gain a furry friend through the Canine Program.
"Veterans active service members that are transitioning into civilian culture have a loss of identity, loss of tribe,” said Ryan Woodruff, the Clear Path for Veterans Canine Program director. “This program can rekindle some aspects of that. You're developing a bond with an animal that unconditionally wants to provide you with companionship and love."
Their efforts don't stop there. They're one of 13 organizations nationwide researching why military members commit suicide, while reminding the personnel they're not alone.
"There's something to be said about thriving and moving forward," Ryan Woodruff.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel,” said Griffin. “Put one foot in front of the other."
"There's a life worth living,” said Smullen.
For more information about Clear Path for Veterans and its programs, go to the website or call them at (315) 687-3300. The Department of Defense is working on a public health plan to prevent suicide, specifically for young and enlisted members, and the National Guard.