A former Navy SEAL's Christmas wish: Our homeless veterans need your help

Many of us will be opening our Christmas presents soon, surrounded by friends and family in what for most is the most joyous time of the year.

Most, but not all.  And far too large a percentage of those who fall into the latter category are military veterans.  In a season of joy and giving, these heroes who were willing to give everything they had for their country will have little joy, in no position to give or receive during this season of gifts.

That’s because on any given night, including Christmas Eve, between 130,000 and 200,000 homeless vets will be sleeping in the streets or in shelters, far removed from their families and with very little to celebrate.  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, that amounts to anywhere from a quarter to a fifth of all homeless in our country.

A national tragedy for sure, but it gets even worse.  A recent survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA) found that an incredible 59 percent of those surveyed knew another vet who’d tried to kill themselves, and 58 percent knew at least one who’d succeeded.  Not surprising given that, according to estimates, as many as 24 veterans take their lives every day.

As many as 24 veterans take their lives every day.

That isn’t just a national tragedy; it’s a national embarrassment.  This sad and terrifying number isn’t new.  What’s new is an acknowledgment that we as a country have an obligation to do everything we can to help our veterans not become a statistic.  And, toward that end, my one Christmas wish this season is that we all resolve to do something to change that, to do one thing to make sure those sobering numbers decline by this time next year.  Like . . .

VOLUNTEER at a local VA (Veteran’s Administration) or any other group that supports the interests of veterans.  If you can’t find one, get a few other like-minded individuals together and start one.

REACH OUT to a veteran at least once a week.  Grab some coffee, make a phone call.  Keep abreast of how they’re doing so you can be a barometer if something is off kilter.  And don’t be afraid to probe beneath the surface with questions about how he or she is adjusting to being back home.  Develop a trust level that will allow you to ask probative questions about the state of their marriage and relationship with their kids.

DONATE to a group that supports veterans interests, like the aforementioned IAVA or another dedicated and committed to dealing with the problem.

ESCORT a veteran with you to church.  God is the ultimate support system and feeling His hand on their shoulder will make vets realize they’re not alone in their struggle.  That if they turn to God, perspective will follow for them, just as it did for me when I faced a crisis that nearly ended my military career before.  I started thinking: let me make it through today—just today. If I can push through the pain today, maybe I’ll be a little bit stronger tomorrow. Living one day at a time kept me from giving up altogether, greeting each morning in the hope I’d feel at least a little bit better, a little bit stronger. Even if it’s only one percent.

ENCOURAGE a veteran to volunteer and/or get involved in something that brings their leadership skills back to the forefront. Many of those 24 vets who take their lives every day do so because they’ve lost their way or, more accurately, have lost track of who they are, and feel as if they have lost their purpose without a passion to follow or a place to belong to. Helping them find a cause they can believe in similarly helps them believe in themselves again. It helped me believe in myself once someone reached out to me, so I know the same can be done for them. Be that someone in their life.

I have never felt better in my life than in the moments that I gave everything that I had to help others, maybe this year you can have feel the same.

The common denominator in all these pursuits is engagement.  Because the more a veteran is engaged with his or her community and family, the more they’ll feel like they belong.  Like there’s something here stateside for them to believe in and want to become a part of to reduce the loneliness and symptoms of PTSD.  I read once about a vet who spent days sitting in the dark before he ultimately took his own life.  Well, it’s time to shine a metaphorical light on his plight.

I was lucky. I found my path and today I spend a great deal of my time mentoring others: primarily professional sports teams, future special operators, and, especially SEAL candidates in the upper Midwest. The question I ask them is, What are you going to do today to be better than yesterday? I tell them to work on getting one percent better than they were yesterday, drawing from my own experience.

And on this solemn occasion when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I find myself with a newborn nestled in my lap.  My daughter is now two months old, and isn’t it something to measure life in those terms instead of years?  Similarly, it isn’t hard to measure the lives of those who’ve selflessly served our country. What’s hard is accepting the fact that so many are in no position to celebrate the holidays.  What are we going to do to change that? I say shine in the darkness, be the light that everyone else is afraid to be. Take a leap of faith and give this Christmas. I have never felt better in my life than in the moments that I gave everything that I had to help others, maybe this year you can have feel the same.

Because my wish for Christmas 2017 is simple:  That Christmas 2018 finds all of America’s veterans safe, warm, alive and surrendering to love instead of hopelessness.

Patrick Bisher is a decorated Navy SEAL for his service in Iraq and the author of "No Surrender: Faith, Family, and Finding Your Way", (Post Hill Press, July 4th).