VA outreach counselor, canine companion prep for rucksack tour of rural towns

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Army vet says building relationships key to reaching veterans in mental health crises

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Jay Zimmerman knows how important community members are when it comes to helping prevent veteran suicide.

“I think the last numbers that came out were roughly 17 veterans die per day by suicide,” the former Army medic and veteran of four Middle East deployments told News Channel 11 Wednesday. “You know out of those the vast majority are not engaged in care.” 

With that in mind, and knowing VA professionals can’t be everywhere, Zimmerman will “ruck” across a wide swath of Northeast Tennessee next week — walking 15-20 miles a day and winding up at town halls in small towns from Limestone to Gatlinburg.

“Instead of waiting for folks to come to us we’re kind of going out and looking for folks where they’re at, meeting them where they’re at, wanting to say, ‘we’re here to help,’” Zimmerman said.

Jay Zimmerman gets some love from Beau, his service dog.

He’ll have a secret weapon of sorts — Beau, a lovable, approachable 2-year-old service dog.

“Beau opens more doors than I do any day of the week.” 

Zimmerman says finding open doors and engaging community members is one reason the Department of Veterans Affairs is putting certified peer support counselors like him directly into communities in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“The VA is treating mental health and suicide prevention more as public health issues,” he said.

They’re “upstream issues,” Zimmerman said. That makes it important to reach people before things spiral out of control and they’re less willing to engage with friends, community members or professionals like him.

COVID made those outreach issues harder, and Zimmerman said he felt like he was “going into a coal mine with a pick axe.

“You make progress but you come out every day with a little tiny bucket.”

Wanting a bigger haul, progress-wise, Zimmerman mused on possible out-of-the-box solutions.

“How can I have more impact. I love what I’m doing but it just feels like it’s taking forever to get there.”

A fan of both Forrest Gump and also former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander’s walking tour to meet constituents when he ran for statewide office, Zimmerman came up with what he called a “crazy idea.”

VA peer support counselor Jay Zimmerman and his service dog Beau will take an 87-mile “ruck” tour across Northeast Tennessee next week to engage veterans and community members and highlight veteran suicide prevention in five small towns.

Why not walk to a series of small towns in the service area and meet with people there? To Zimmerman’s surprise, leadership at James H. Quillen VA Medical Center bought it.

“We used to do ruck marches,” Zimmerman said. “Throw a backpack on your back, load it with gear and get from point A to point B.” 

That’s what Zimmerman and Beau will do starting Monday, when they’ll depart at 6 a.m. from the Veterans Memorial on West Market Street in Johnson City.

They’ll join members of Mountain Home’s suicide prevention team at 1:30 p.m. each day, starting in Limestone at Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park. They’ll progress to Veterans Memorial Park in Greeneville, Newport City Park, Patriot Park in Pigeon Forge and finish Friday afternoon at Herbert Holt Park in Gatlinburg.

Zimmerman said the message is simple.

“There’s hope surrounding mental health treatment and suicide prevention, that the VA’s here but that we’re not just here, that we’re out in the community trying to be where people are at.” 

Zimmerman is set for what he hopes to be an impactful tour across Northeast Tennessee.

A native Appalachian from outside Kingsport, Zimmerman said he grew up in a family that didn’t complain — or really even talk about — mental stress.

He believes native Appalachian pride and military experience create a cocktail of self reliance that’s not helpful when mental health issues arise. 

“Suck it up buttercup — that was reinforced in the military so I think when you get veterans from Appalachia they kind of have a double dose.” 

With Beau at his side next week, he hopes to break through that hard shell with people, or at least help community members understand they can make a difference, too.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to somebody,” he said. “There are a lot of myths out there that if you ask somebody, ‘are you having thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself,’ that you’re going to plant that seed.

“It’s a myth. Maybe you are opening the door that they need help opening, because speaking from my own experience when I felt like I was in that place where there was no way out it took somebody asking the question to basically open that door for me to speak.

“I tell people all the time, what scares me more than somebody talking to me about having thoughts of wanting to harm themselves is when they’re not talking to me about the thoughts that they’re having. It’s usually when they’re not going to say anything that their wheels are turning as to ‘what’s my exit strategy.’

“When they’re talking to you about it it gives you the opportunity to talk about other options.”

Zimmerman and Beau will be chronicling their journey via the James H. Quillen Medical Center Facebook site under the event page “Recovery Ruck” and #jayandbeau.

They’ll also be available to talk with veterans and community members from noon to 3 p.m. each day at the town hall sites.

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