by: Sammy Skochen
People always assume there must be some sort of sad story regarding a family member or friend as my reasoning for my involvement with veterans, but thankfully it is just a strong passion of mine. Ever since I can remember from a very young age, I was always invested in anything and everything involving the Military. Growing up, my father very much wanted to enlist in the Navy as his father and great uncle did before him. Unfortunately, due to a rule that was implemented after a group of brothers known as the Sullivan Brothers, all died on one ship causing no one else to carry out the family name, my father was denied. This rule prevented my father from enlisting being that he was the last ‘Skochen’ male. So instead of being in the military, he made a life for himself incorporating as much of a military life as he could. As a kid, I always remember having battleships all over the house, watching Band of Brothers every Sunday, Saving Private Ryan every time it came on, watching the History Channel and watching his favorite P-51 mustangs fly over just about every piece of land in Germany and just overall having a high level of appreciation for anyone in uniform. As I got older, I became very intrigued by the “brotherhood” and the psychiatric portion that was always portrayed in movies that not everyone would see or could comprehend. My love and appreciation came out in history classes, writing classes, parades, holidays and just about any other way I could express myself.
Fast forward to my college years when I started my journey to be a registered nurse. I became the class president after starting a permanent donation station for the Menlo Park Veteran’s Home and accomplished many goals for the association. This is when it really all began for my veteran journey and I owe it all to a dear colleague of mine, as well as an Air Force veteran, Sam. Sam was my classmate and saw how much of an interest I had in helping veterans. However, because of the crazy world of social media, I never wanted to put myself out there in fear that someone would misinterpret my intentions for wanting to help veterans. Sadly, people always take a great cause and somehow will make it about them and that was not me. Sam saw my intent for what it really was and therefore introduced me to the Middlesex County College Student Veterans Group and the rest was history. From there I gained a family that I still to this day cherish. The men and women of the MCCSV group, took me in as one of their own to every event, meeting and gathering they had. From there I helped advocate for them in the college, outside events and just as a friend. They gave me the name “veteran advocate” that has followed me to this day.
As my nursing journey continued, and my veteran involvement grew, I came across an organization one day from another friend Mark, who happened to be in the Marines at the time and posted about a “Ruck Run” he had created to raise awareness about veteran suicide. Now, before this post I had never heard of veteran suicide and never knew how severe of problem it was. The organization was named Mission 22, which helped thousands of veterans and families seek the help they needed to get through their struggles. I then contacted Mark to seek out more information which he then put me in contact with the Regional III Leader, Steve who would later become another great friend of mine. Mission 22 became my platform to work off of. It gave me insight to so many more options for our veterans, allowed for me to meet such outstanding people, and gave me a voice even louder than the one I have now. I became an official ambassador once I contacted Mark and soon began my own events, networking and overall advocating.
Along the way, I involved myself in many other organizations such as Vets4Warrior, Mighty Oaks Warrior Program, RVCC Veteran Group, Operation Safe Haven, BCOF, and so many more. I created more events, raised more money, gathered donations and started to see and hear the hardships of our veterans and what really goes on behind closed doors. Being a veteran advocate is more than just a social media post, or attending a fundraiser. Without getting into too much detail, it is a 24/7 commitment. Our veterans are lost, in pain, suffering from mental and physical trauma, are forgotten about or are overlooked, and
have severe trust issues especially toward non-veteran civilians. People often ask me how they can get involved and I will be straight forward and honest and say that it is not something meant for anyone weak minded or not committed. Gaining trust is the number one hurdle. For our veterans, as a civilian wanting to help them sends a message to them with the question, why? Why would a non-veteran want to actually help a veteran when they have no idea what they went through? When most of America only comes around on “holidays” such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day? Which if you ask a veteran, neither of which are holidays only days to remind them of all their friends and family lost.
Being a veteran advocate takes dedication and determination that not many have. It requires strength and a level of understanding that not everyone can be saved…but we must try our best every day. It means that in the middle of the night you might receive a chilling phone call that your friend who was in the air force and cannot get help for his pain, is currently walking around a bridge with a .40 about to “put a bullet in my brain and end it all”. It means listening for hours at events about how a woman lost her husband to suicide after being married for forty years, has 4 kids, and contemplating suicide herself as well as her oldest son.
It means despite the outer appearance, hearing that a dear friend and well-known veteran took his own life after accomplishing so many goals and getting over so many struggles but it was a pandemic that ultimately ruined his life…despite the three little children and dogs he left behind.
It takes a lot as an individual to try and understand veterans with how they think and act. Many love the idea of being there for veterans but only a few can partake in the journey to ending veteran suicide. Sometimes I believe that being a nurse helps me to cope with it all, as we too have to go through at lot when advocating. Our veterans have sacrificed so much and in return receive so little. I do not want a thank you, I do not want to be honored for my involvement, I only want for the “killer 22” to one day decrease worldwide. As times get harder to deal with regarding politics, health and everything else life has to throw at us, I cannot stress enough how important it is to help our veterans. Many were lost this year due to the pandemic and outlets being shut down for veterans to engage in. Even a simple “hey how are you thesedays” can go a long way. Every effort counts here, and it should be our duty as civilians to want to help our men and women that sacrificed it all for us.