Veteran and double bronze star recipient shares how military culture might contribute to suicidality — or at least a lack of willingness to get help — and how the American Legion is trying to fix that.
Every day, 17 U.S. military veterans die by suicide. How can we even begin to stop this tragedy? The American Legion, a 107-year-old organization dedicated to serving veterans, has a plan.
Dave Berkenfield leads the Chip Ganassi Racing, GMC HUMMER EV, Extreme E competition group as well as the broader Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, developing Human Performance Initiative on both the IndyCar and US / Global Sports Car Teams. Prior to joining Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, Berkenfield completed a 25-year career serving in the U.S. Military Special Operations community focusing on building and leading small teams in dynamic and austere combat environments. During his military career, Berkenfield helped implement and apply cutting-edge and emerging technologies in tactical ground Mobility operations. He created advanced & performance driver training and curriculum development in addition to overseeing the engineering, development, and testing from conception through to validation of many unique and advanced two- and four-wheeled military off-road platforms. Serving with distinction during numerous combat deployments, SOCS (SEAL) Ret. Berkenfield was awarded two Bronze Stars with the Valorous devices, one Joint Commendation medal with Valor device, the Purple Heart medal, three combat action ribbons, two National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citations among many Presidential unit citations, and a multitude of other qualifications and awards. Berkenfield retired after a successful Troop Chief tour with 25 years of service in May of 2021 as a Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL). Berkenfield graduated summa cum laude from Norwich University with a Bachelor of Science in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hi, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling in to the show today we have Dave Berkenfield. Dave completed a 25-year career serving in the US military, and during that career he was awarded two Bronze Stars, one Joint Commendation Medal with Valor device and the Purple Heart Medal, among other prestigious honors. Today, Dave is here to help us better understand and combat veterans’ suicide and share information about the American Legion’s Be the One campaign. Dave, welcome to the show.
Dave Berkenfield: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for having me. And tackling this challenging subject. It’s something I’m passionate about and I think we should all be passionate about. So thanks for having us.
Gabe Howard: Dave, thank thank you for being here because although improving, the reality is, is that American society just doesn’t take suicide seriously enough. Period. And when it comes to our military veterans, we have the perfect storm of risk factors. We have younger people, many of whom have been through traumatic experiences and they have access to firearms. And all of those things are individual risk factors, and veterans often have all three risk factors. Do you think that that contributes to veterans having such high rates of suicide?
Dave Berkenfield: You know, I think the challenging thing with the veteran community is that if we really understood innately why the veteran community has a higher risk doctor and we get these big looming numbers like the 22 a day or 17 a day, I think that we as a community, the DOD at large, the Veterans Administration, everyone would be able to tackle that and drive those numbers down. There is so many reasons that culturally this generation is tackling this epidemic. A lot of those reasons are, frankly, the same reasons that the rest of the population struggles with mental health, the same reasons that this discussion is being had with professional athletes, with socialites, with younger and younger generations in school age children. In the veteran community, we just have another annex, if you will, that piles on to that and that is sometimes uniquely veteran specific. So I think maybe that’s a long way to answer your question, but I’m not sure those things that you highlighted are specific to veterans, but I think they’re all points to be taken into consideration.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting that you pointed out that they’re not specific to veterans because you’re right, we tend to look at veterans as if they exist outside of society, as they exist outside of the population. But the reality is, is everything that is impacting society impacts veterans. And then we have this extra thing I’m often fascinated with when we’re talking about suicidality and the veteran community that we seem to discuss them as if they’re not also people. Do you find that that’s beneficial or not beneficial? Because, like even the topic of this show is veteran suicidality. It’s not suicidality. It’s got that extra tag. Is that is that a positive thing? A negative thing?
Dave Berkenfield: You know, I don’t know who else in the general population spends a year away from their family, a year away from their children, serving in amazingly remote locations, dealing with trauma on a regular basis, dealing with loss on a regular basis, maybe dealing with injury or things like that. So I think that we do have to set aside the veterans side of this conversation and realize the answers to the veteran community might be uniquely veteran, but they’re not something that we should forget with the whole population, which goes back to your question of the whole population is sometimes struggling with this mental health dilemma that we’re in right now. So, yeah, it’s a it’s a challenging thing. There’s so many facets to the conversation. It’s just at what perspective you’re looking at it from. And and for me and the American Legion, the veteran community, we have to look at it with a veteran’s eye for sure.
Gabe Howard: One of the core components of military culture is I don’t want to say invincibility because that’s not the right word, but there’s sort of a of a toughness aspect. A we can do it, we can overcome anything. There’s there’s no challenge that we can’t move. And with mental health, I know a lot of people, they just don’t want to admit that they’re having a problem because it sounds like a weakness. Is that culture changing in the military? Did you experience that culture? What’s that like from your perspective? Because obviously, step one is being able to admit that something’s wrong and asking for help, because otherwise you’re going to have to rely on other people to notice. And that can be very difficult for the people around you to notice. Because I know that when my sister came home from Iraq, I just started calling her a war hero. And to this day, I, I just really talk about her in this. You know, she’s a bad ass language. And I imagine that that might make it even more difficult for her to ask for help if she was in the position to need it. And that seems to be the entire military culture. That’s even the commercials that we see on television. Right. You know, be all that you can be be a bad ass. We do more before 5 a.m. than most people do in a day. So does all of this mix in and is it changing? Can it change?
Dave Berkenfield: I think that’s a hard one. You are absolutely right. The culture of the military, every branch of service, and it is sort of suffer and silence. It’s just get the work done, whatever the cost. And I’m stronger than the adversary. I’m stronger than the challenge that is put in front of me. That is true in the military needs that we have to have that culturally, the task at hand for the military is impossible. If you think about what the military’s job is, it’s a no fail situation. You cannot fail, right? When you fail, people die in the most simplest of terms. I think that what the military does very well is instill that. And they do it maybe at the deficit of the veteran community when they get out of the military. I think that the way around that in what worked well for me as a leader in the military, is taking a moment to realize that everyone is human and people have human problems. For me, that sort of position, rank experience aside, if you could break through some of that as a key leader in the military and have what you could categorize as a sidebar conversation with people off the record, a lot of times you gain trust, and when you gain that trust, you realize that people are struggling. Maybe they’re struggling at home, maybe they’re struggling with something that you just don’t even know about. That type of leadership style, I think, isn’t incredibly prevalent in the military. I think it’s something that should be embraced.
Dave Berkenfield: I think it’s something that should be put into our senior enlisted academies, our officer academy programs. I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. I think that we’re starting to see some change towards that culturally, but obviously it’s incredibly challenging for sure. Once you’re out of the military, for me, once you’re out of the military, those conversations become much easier to have. But you need to be confident in the scenario. You need to be confident in what you’ve done and your experiences. And if you’re okay talking about it and asking for help, I mean, it sort of comes full circle there. So I don’t think there’s a good solution to it yet. But is it something that needs to continue to be highlighted? Is it something that needs to be continued energy needs to be put into it, Training needs to be put into it? Yeah, for sure. But it needs to come with the right attitude, the right flavor, the right core values for sure, because not done properly, you’re going to have some some salty, some salty gunny sergeants and some salty platoon chiefs and salty frogman, salty airmen that are just going to say, Hey, this is not for me. And then and then it’s not the right initiative. So I think it’s something the military is starting to realize that they need to tackle. I’m not sure they’re doing it at the level that they need to yet, but I know they’re taking interest in it.
Gabe Howard: Dave, can you tell us why this is so important to you? Because it seems like this is very personal.
Dave Berkenfield: Yeah, Yeah. I mean, for me, this is beyond personal, right? I lost my brother over ten years ago to suicide, it still chokes me up, you know, thinking about it. I mean, he’s my older brother. I’ve lost multiple teammates, close teammates to suicide. I’ve seen what it has wrecked the community. I’ve been to those memorials. I’ve seen the the shadow that it casts on the families, the teammates. And for me, as well as many of my teammates that are sort of standing up now, you know, and the SEAL ethos, there’s a term that says in the absence of leadership, I will lead. If there’s anything that I am passionate about now and maybe can use the platform that I’ve been presented to try to shed some light on this. This is it. This is it. This is the goal of this generation, this generation of veterans. And I think that that also is telling and tells a story about the American Legion there that a lot of people don’t know about. That is also part of this tale is that people in myself included, did not know a generational story of the American Legion. When we thought of when I thought about the American Legion, I think about brick and mortar veterans bar, if you will, for lack of a better term, in every small little community that people hold events at.
Dave Berkenfield: And and it’s probably sort of old and maybe run down and smoky and and that is not the story of the American Legion and I just didn’t know that. And I was in the military for 25 years. Right. Like the true story is it’s 107 year old veteran services organization that is institutionally there to support veterans. Right. Like the American Legion built the middle class of America by bringing the veterans home in writing the GI Bill and getting it through Congress. Right. Getting it signed by the executive branch. Generation after generation, The American Legion has done that in their realization, understanding and call to action here to know that this generation’s biggest challenge is veterans suicide. And we have to take that seriously. We have to put energy into it. I couldn’t be happier to be part of this in a very small, very small portion. But that’s the goal, is to raise that awareness, raise the awareness of what the Legion is doing, raise it inside the Beltway, raise it with the Veterans Administration, raise it with every community, raise it with thousands of posts around the nation, and you start thinking about reach. That’s really what we need to do, and that’s why we’re doing it.
Gabe Howard: I did not know that about the American Legion either. I do have that that image in my head of the of the smaller buildings. You know, we have like, you know, weddings and graduations and parties. They they seem to be ubiquitous with small town America. But you’re right. It’s incredible that the work that they did, that I the work that they’ve done and that they’re doing that I learned about in preparation for this show. But one of the things that I thought about as I was reading about all of the initiatives that the American Legion’s have put forward throughout the decades is why do they have to Shouldn’t the military be looking out for our veterans? Shouldn’t they be protecting our soldiers?
Dave Berkenfield: Yeah. You know, that’s a good that’s a good question. And what I would tell you is it’s a little bit like the difference between the executive branch in the judicial branch and it’s how our government and how our military organization is built. Right. The Veterans Administration is a separate part of the DOD. It is not one and the same. When you transfer from an active duty service member to a retired member, medically retired, retired after 20 years, you are cycling into the VA system. The thing that you have to realize is that a lot of people don’t realize is that there are so many veterans that never sign up for the VA. There are so many veterans that actually don’t necessarily take a proactive role in their after service life. And that’s part of this problem as well, is how that transition plays out. You know, and I’m not a clinical psychologist. I’m experiential based, if you will, but what I have noticed is big segments of the military population when they have challenges, a lot of that challenges is based around transitional time periods. Me getting out of the military, it’s going from good health to bad health. It’s going from I have a job to no job. It’s going from a solid family life to maybe a poor family life. And those transitional periods can be key indicators to a higher risk factor for veterans suicide and the Defense Department, they’re not looking at those. They’re not, they’re frankly not looking at those key indicators. They’re looking at those key indicators for their service members when they’re in active duty for sure. And they’re in tune with that. When you transition out of the military, you don’t have that blanket. And that’s part of the problem there.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with US military retiree Dave Berkenfield discussing veteran suicide prevention. I want to talk about the American Legion and the Be the One campaign. Can you explain to our listeners exactly what it is and how it works?
Dave Berkenfield: You know, the Legion started this initiative well before me, before my input here. What we’re trying to do is to get the awareness at such a high level and help people realize that they can make a difference. Right? It takes one individual to make a difference. I can’t tell you how many how many times I’ve had conversations with my friends. I have a friend right now that’s struggling and just daily calls to him, telling him that he’s going to get through it, telling him that we’re going to help him. My friends and I were circling around him and we have to get that message out that we need everybody to be proactive. We need everybody to realize that small gestures make big differences and Be the One is the catalyst for that. Right. Be the one to make a difference. Be the one to ask for help, if you are a veteran. Maybe you’re a veteran’s spouse. Maybe you’re a veteran’s son or daughter or employer or friend. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And there are so many resources out there. BetheOne.org is a great starting place for a resource. Just recently, a national crisis hotline was created with 988 and it connects you to a lot of resources there.
Dave Berkenfield: If you’re a veteran, it’s actually 9881. We’ll connect you to some some veteran specific resources. But when I think about what people can do and what individuals can do, I really try to boil it down as simple as we can, because that is my theme here. My theme is we can make a difference. Individuals can make a difference in how do you do that? I think the first thing is you need to get educated on what some of those resources are. And then the second part of it is just you need to be comfortable having some of these uncomfortable conversations. It is incredibly challenging to ask somebody if they’re thinking about hurting themselves. Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Can I help you? What can I help you do? Can I connect you with a professional? Can I talk to the professional on your behalf? Asking those questions is incredibly uncomfortable. And so be uncomfortable. Start getting uncomfortable and being being okay with that conversation. The last thing that I think is really important is just a sense of community.
Dave Berkenfield: Like we are in this modern age getting more and more disconnected. I think about that every time I walk through an airport. You know, everyone’s in their own little zone, whether they’re marching at the beat of the clock, trying to make it to a next flight, or they’re on the phone or they’re in their screens, if you will. And for me, and I live a hectic life, right? Like I’m a team manager at a professional race team. I’m traveling to ten or 15 countries a year and going all over the place. And I have as many meetings as is everyone else, but trying to figure out how to connect with people at an honest level. You have to take a proactive step to do that. It’s not going to naturally come at this point. There’s too much going on. Those natural, honest conversations maybe can make a difference here, too. And I’ve seen that work. I’ve seen that succeed with engagements that I’ve had with friends that were really struggling. And I think that’s the last part of my cocktail of help. There is honest early conversations will maybe help us get ahead of this.
Gabe Howard: I know that in suicide prevention training, we’ve also learned that sometimes the. Are you hurting yourself isn’t the right question to ask. You’ve got to be very specific. You have to say, are you planning on killing yourself because you know, people who are suicidal, they might not see killing themselves and hurting themselves as the same thing. So when you say are you planning on hurting yourself, they say no, because they’re not. They’re planning on killing themselves. And I know when I was suicidal, people would ask me all the time, Are you okay? How are you doing? And I would always answer that I was doing fine because in my mind, having made this decision to end my own life, actually provided an uptick in how I felt. And these are all of the things that make it very, very complicated because there’s just so much information that the general public lacks. Is the Be the One campaign helping to get more training and more information into what I’m going to call the the veteran adjacent community? Because, like, for example, in my family, my sister is a veteran. She served two tours in Iraq. She was in the military for about 15 years, but she is the only one outside of my grandfather, who served in the Korean War. She was the next veteran. So her whole support system, her family, her brother, her her, her mother, her father, her grandparents, etc., none of us have that quote-unquote veteran experience. Is there training to help us help her if she would be in that position?
Dave Berkenfield: You know, I think you highlight something that’s really important, and I have noticed that personally is stepping away from an active duty military position where you are surrounded every single day, 365 days a year by generally a big group of friends, you know, like-minded individuals striving for the same goal. And when you leave that safety net and you step out into the big world, the big world is different. The big world is very, very, very different. And your next safety net generally is friends and family. And the friends and family might have an understanding of what your experience was. Might not have an understanding of what your experience was. They might not have any idea how to approach you. And I think that is okay, because I think what you’re getting at there is really getting down to the heart of just being comfortable, having some honest conversations with people. It’s maybe you don’t have training, but if you sit down and listen to what people are saying are okay, maybe asking some of these hard questions, you know, tell me about your experiences. Did any of those experiences bother you? What was that like? I think that that might lead you to maybe I need to start getting educated here. Right. Because you’re taking on a lot there as a friend to is there lots of resources available? Of course, of course there’s lots of resources available, but you’re going to have to look for them, right? You’re going to have to put some energy into that.
Dave Berkenfield: And that’s okay. That’s part of this. That’s part of getting educated. That’s part of being committed to if you have veterans in your community, if you have a veteran, maybe employer, if you have a veteran family member, that’s number one. Get educated. There’s a lot of tools out there. And maybe that get it, get educated is just, you know, where can I connect to my veteran brother with a local American legion that he’s not part of? That then opens up the eyes to all the other resources that are out there. The American Legion has a ton of VSOs, of veteran service officers, and this is what they do. This is what they do every single day. You might not know the resources. That’s okay. All you need to know is there’s someone out there that has the resources and you need to figure out how to get in touch with them. And the American Legion is a great point to start that conversation. They have a network of veteran service officers. They have connections right into the VA and the VA hospitals. They have connections with communities of like minded folks that are within the American Legion that are maybe doing things all together. Man, there’s a lot out there. It’s just you got to take that first step.
Gabe Howard: Dave, how can our listeners who are veterans or even listeners who are not get involved in the Be the One campaign?
Dave Berkenfield: I think the first thing is just sort of ask yourself, Hey, what can I do to help? What can I actually do to help? Because that’s going to start the energy. And then at that point, it start getting yourself educated and start being involved. Start finding that sense of community. And that is what’s going to help. BetheOne.org. The American Legion. Get involved with the American Legion. If you’re not an American Legion member, realize that this is a 107-year-old organization with nothing to do other than help veterans. That’s its whole goal, right? Think about that. So join the American Legion. Start spreading the word about being the one. Start pointing it out to friends. Get on the web page and read it. Figure out what your community resources are. Maybe it’s if you go to church, maybe it’s your church. Maybe it’s a primary care provider. If you’re struggling as a veteran, there’s tons of resources out there to help you. Less than 1% of the population serves this nation. This nation is the best nation on the planet, Hands down. It’s amazing. We all love it. The veteran community is a national treasure. We need to do what we can to help each other and help veterans at large. And that might just be asking a friend, that’s a veteran, how you’re doing. Would you like to go to lunch? And you never know what’s going to happen from that conversation. You would be amazed at the conversations that I have had in airports. Sitting next to someone with a Vietnam veteran hat on. People that I’ve connected with over the years in what you can do to instill community and just a sense of conversation with somebody. So I think it’s just getting involved. We all need to get involved. The American Legion is leading this effort. Let’s help the Legion. Let’s all get involved. We all can be the one.
Gabe Howard: Dave, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page. The Be the One campaign sounds like it’s about everybody, not just veterans, but also veterans, families, friends. It sounds like it’s really open to everybody. Is that correct?
Dave Berkenfield: Absolutely. That is what this campaign is about. This campaign is about everybody taking a step forward and realizing that we all can make a difference. Everybody can make a difference.
Gabe Howard: BetheOne.org. Very easy and easy to check out. Dave, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate your time.
Dave Berkenfield: Yeah. Thank you. And yeah, I’m looking forward to the days where we don’t need to have this conversation and we can tackle this thing, but we’re going to be doing it one at a time. And that’s, that’s the way to success. So thank you and thank you for the call.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Dave. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can get a signed copy with free podcast swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And can you do me a favor? Recommend the show. Share us on social media. Share us in a support group. Tell a buddy. Sharing the show is how we grow and I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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