John Jones wears his Project Phoenix SA shirt at an event. Credit: Courtesy / Project Phoenix

It can be difficult to know how to help someone you suspect has thoughts of suicide. The challenge can be compounded if that person is a veteran or active duty service member dealing with issues not easily understood by civilians, issues like traumatic brain injuries, catastrophic physical injuries, and transitioning back home after deployment.

A Veterans Affairs (VA) 2016 study estimates that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. The VA is aggressively undertaking a number of new measures to prevent these tragedies from happening.

If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of a veteran, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. You can also chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support from an experienced VA responder.

But what if you are that military service member serving on active duty, a veteran, or perhaps you are a military spouse or dependent seeking a supportive local network?

Project Phoenix SA seeks to fulfill that need here in San Antonio.

Currently at more than 350 members, the organization evolved from a local group called Nets on the Run that started about five years ago. Officially organized as a nonprofit since June, Project Phoenix SA’s mission statement is “to provide our members with inclusive events promoting active participation resulting in a positive impact on our commUNITY.”

Open to everybody, the group includes active duty members, military veterans, and military family members who participate in its monthly walk/run as well as in community building service projects and activities.

San Antonio native and Army veteran Roy Orozco explained the reason for starting Project Phoenix SA.

“At the first walk for Project Phoenix SA in July about 60 people came to walk, with at least 30-35 people who I have never met before,” Orozco said. “I’ve met new people every month who have been affected firsthand by veteran suicides.”

Orozco told one story about how a mother came to a walk because she was having difficulties adjusting after the suicide of her veteran son.

“She told us, ‘Thank you for doing this,’ and explained how she was struggling with the death of her son,” Orozco said. “This came from a mother who still wonders to this day what signs she missed, because her son – who was in the Navy, went to Afghanistan where he was a corpsman, and returned to go into nursing school – then committed suicide. He gave her no indications he was suicidal.”

Monthly Suicide Awareness Walk Provides Needed Support

The monthly veteran’s suicide awareness walk is typically held the last Sunday of the month starting at 9 a.m. The two mile walk starts in the new section of the Fort Sam cemetery with the rally point in its amphitheater, proceeds to Fort Sam’s main gate, and then back to the rally point to complete the two miles.

This month, the veteran’s suicide awareness walk will take place on Oct. 23 due to the Marine Corp marathon scheduled the last Sunday.

Project Phoenix SA members emphasize there are local resources available for veterans beyond calling the VA Military Crisis Line.

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Family Endeavors, Inc. provides quality, accessible mental health care to veterans and their families at no cost. Services are available to any person who has served in the U.S. armed forces, including the National Guard and Reserves, regardless of role or discharge status. Located on DeZavala Road, you can call for an appointment at 210-399-4838.

“We are trying to help knock down the waitlist at VA,” Orozco said. “One of our members told me yesterday that she’s going to counseling (at Family Endeavors), (and that) she’s already been seen. (At the VA) they told her the backlog is a three-month wait to be seen.”

Project Phoenix SA Works on #CommUNITY

Project Phoenix SA also organizes service projects that unite members of different nonprofit organizations to work for a common cause that supports the community. The local group often uses #CommUNITY to highlight its service oriented projects’ efforts to strengthen the community.

“We wanted to bring our community together and include other organizations,” Orozco said. “We met people from other organizations working on the same causes, but they didn’t work together.

“We help local chapters of (nonprofit) organizations. For example, we partnered with Haven for Hope on a service project as part of their community ambassador program to revitalize the outdoor areas for the Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio.”

Haven for Hope Community Events Coordinator Michael Mercado recently enlisted Project Phoenix SA’s partnership on a grant proposal for a service event that is part of the Haven’s community ambassador program.

After reviewing Project Phoenix SA’s application for a $5,000 grant out of a nationwide pool of applicants, the Points of Light Foundation funded Project Phoenix SA with a $3,000 grant to complete the Boys and Girls Club outdoor revitalization.

Project Phoenix SA supports Segs4Vets at its events.
Project Phoenix SA supports Segs4Vets at its events. Credit: Courtesy / Project Phoenix

“I reached out to Roy for a partnership for this service project,” Mercado told the Rivard Report. “(Project Phoenix SA) brought out a good sized team and worked an eight-hour day from start to finish to redo the baseball diamond, do some landscaping, painting picnic tables, the works.

“I knew it was a large, committed group of veterans in the community, so it made sense to reach out to them for this service project.”

The way Project Phoenix SA has been set up enables it to help other local organizations in San Antonio. For example, Segs 4 Vets has awarded free Segways to provide disabled veterans mobility.

“We are promoting and volunteering at their (Segs 4 Vets) race,” Orozco explained. “We also help with Street 2 Feet (a Haven for Hope run/walk group) as mentors to their members going through the program.”

Street 2 Feet is a 5K training program for individuals experiencing homelessness in San Antonio.

Project Phoenix SA members participate in various community building service projects.
Project Phoenix SA member Roel Gonzalez wears a team shirt at the Boys and Girls Club community building service project. Credit: Courtesy / Project Phoenix

The Warrior Fitness Center SA is another local partner with Project Phoenix SA. The fitness center provides adaptive workouts for both veterans and civilians. Project Phoenix SA encourages its members to use the facilities and support others using the center whenever possible.

The long-term vision for Project Phoenix SA is to have different types of organizations offering services for veterans represented at the monthly veteran suicide awareness walks to highlight available support for this vulnerable veteran population.

“Community service gives us a sense of purpose again, because after all, it was service that for most of us was the prime motivator to join the military,” Orozco stressed. “Being a member of Project Phoenix SA provides that feeling (of being) part of a team and the camaraderie that supports what we do.”

For anyone contemplating suicide, the Center for Health Care Services servicing Bexar County has a 24/7 suicide hotline at (210) 223-7233 or 1-800-316-9241.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.