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Dan Davis

Local veteran's persistence pays off for all vets

Dan Davis' goal for the last couple of years has been relatively straight-forward: Make it simpler for veterans contemplating suicide to talk to someone and get help right then. Now, after many twists and turns on a path that proved to be anything but straight, he has succeeded.

Under the current Veterans Affairs system, veterans in crisis can call 1-800-273-8255, then press 1 to talk to someone. The complication comes if they call their local VA, at which point they'll be referred to that same 1-800 number. Davis said that felt like too much to remember, too many steps for someone in severe emotional distress.

"A veteran in crisis is not going to hang up and remember that," Davis said.

Davis, who lives in Talent and is himself a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, set about to see whether the process could be simplified. It turns out, it could.

Now, veterans contemplating suicide who call a local VA office will be given one number to press to be connected to a suicide prevention hotline. Called "Option 7," the service will be available at all VA facilities by summer's end, officials say, but in recognition of Davis' efforts, the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City will have the system in place on Friday.

"I have to say, it's very gratifying," Davis said. "I'm very pleased with the VA."

Davis' notion that things needed to change started in 2014.

"Somebody close to us had experienced that in their family. Suicide, I mean," Davis said.

Davis said he also had been part of several veterans groups. Through those and conversations with other veterans, the urgency grew to do something that would simplify the process.

It's an issue of which public health officials also are taking note. A 2014 report by the Oregon Health Authority's Public Health Division says suicide is the leading cause of death among veterans under 45 years of age. From 2001 to 2012, Oregon veteran suicides averaged about 150 per year, the study says.

Between 2008 and 2012, veterans accounted for just under 9 percent of Oregon's population, but "but accounted for approximately 23 percent of suicide deaths among Oregon residents," the study reads. 

Davis started a petition online at www.thepetitionsite.com and quickly garnered 2,000 signatures. One of the petition site managers even offered to help. He and Davis went to the Federal Communications Commission to see how they could move forward. Time went by, and the process stalled, even after they had gathered thousands of additional signatures.

"I thought that it would be a simple thing, and lo and behold, it's not a simple thing," Davis said.

Eventually, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., got involved. Davis said he told Merkley about his idea at a March Habitat For Humanity event, and that Merkley offered his assistance.

"We need to do much more to help our veterans who are struggling with mental illness and depression, but my hope is that this small change will help save lives," Merkley said in a prepared statement earlier this week. "We would never leave our wounded troops behind on the battlefield and we can't leave them behind here at home."

Davis said he hopes to keep going and push for a similar streamlined phone support system for anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide.

"The FCC needs to step up to the plate like the VA has," he said. "It should be doable with the technology that we have. There's almost no excuse in my mind."

Nevertheless, Davis is pleased that Option 7 has come to fruition. He hopes it will be a help to veterans who are struggling, and that they will utilize it if needed.

"When you're in crisis, it may sometimes seem like there's not help and things can't change. But they do," Davis said. "The most important thing is to talk to someone."

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Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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