Little in her background suggested that Venus Azevedo-Laboda would become an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder. After all, she was a retail store manager, not a psychologist. The change came suddenly and tragically when her brother, U.S. Navy Combat Corpsman Phillip A. Azevedo, took his own life in March 2012. He was just 25 years old. It ripped her family apart, and she blamed herself. She knew he had PTSD, and that he was self-medicating with alcohol, but had no idea how to deal with it.
"I wasn't able to help him, and I said all the wrong things," she says. "I couldn't save his life, but I want to save others. I don't want a family to go through what we've been through."
A nonprofit veterans outreach program, "Boots on Ground," grew from Azevedo-Laboda's pain. She voraciously consumed every book and research paper she could on suicide in the military. She took classes and received certifications in grief and trauma. Azevedo-Laboda learned how to talk with someone with PTSD. The work, along with therapy, helped heal her own personal trauma.
Azevedo-Laboda knew she was too late to save her little brother, but there were others who could be saved. "I want to be able to educate other families in our community on what to do, and what to say when you have a veteran in crisis. Because it is completely different from what you would say to a civilian in crisis," Azevedo-Laboda says.
The Department of Defense reported that suicide rates among active duty members declined in 2013 to the rate equal to the suicide rate of the civilian population. Rates among National Guard and reservists, however, remain "significantly higher." And a 2015 study found recent veterans committed suicide at a rate 50 percent higher than the rate for people who never served in the military. Twenty-two veterans take their own lives every day.
Azevedo-Laboda's drive for changing a system that she believes let her family down took her from Erie to the Pentagon in search of answers. Why is this happening, she wanted to know, and how can we stop it? Her brother's bronze star award, won for performing heroic action under fire in Afghanistan, helped her gain entry into the tightly closed world of the U.S. military. There she told a U.S. Navy officer that they need to warn families about the person who may be coming home to them once active combat duty is done.
She says her brother had asked for help from his superior officers three times, but all that happened was they patted him on the shoulder, told him he'd get over it, and he would have "an amazing career." Seeking treatment for mental illness, Azevedo-Laboda notes, isn't something that helps win promotion within the military.
"It took a lot of courage for him to reach out for help, and then to be let down by the Navy that he loved so much, that's why the Pentagon agreed to meet with me. And that's when I decided that we needed to start a nonprofit, for our veterans and their families," Azevedo-Laboda says.
After operating Boots on Ground from her home as a solo crusade, Azevedo-Laboda has been joined by Rob and Cyndi Treiber. Rob Treiber is a veteran of eight combat deployments, and Cyndi Treiber knows what it's like to hold down the household alone. The passionate and tireless Azevedo-Laboda has earned support from local legislators and community leaders. She's also been elected president of the Erie County Suicide Prevention Task Force.
In October, B.O.G. found a corporate home as a program of the Mental Health Association of Northwestern PA, a private nonprofit.
B.O.G. and MHA are now working to secure funding from the community that will make B.O.G. the only vet driven/run drop-in recovery center in the area. B.O.G. will be temporarily housed in office space at the MHA facility at 1101 Peach St., pending location and funding for a roughly 2,500-square-foot site for B.O.G.
One might wonder why the Veterans Affairs Department isn't leading the charge? It recognizes the PTSD problem and has implemented many programs for suicidal vets. The VA, Azevedo-Laboda says, does what it can, but often vets don't feel comfortable going there.
"You have one in five veterans who do not go to the VA," she says. "Nothing against the VA, but these vets don't trust the military. From 2001 to the present, more than 2.5 million men and women have been deployed. That is a lot of people who have come home." Those vets, she says, need help readjusting to civilian life.
A 2015 study by the VA and the National Institutes of Health also shows that relying on doctors and the medical staff to identify the potential of suicide among vets often misses a majority of at-risk veterans. Azevedo-Laboda says medical privacy laws restrict interaction between doctors and family members of veterans. She often talks about a call she received about a young veteran who walked away from a veterans hospital.
"No one could find him," she says. "So you're trying to call a VA saying this is what is going on, but they are saying, 'Well we can't tell you anything.' We have a vet that is wandering around here, somewhere, and we cannot work together to find him because of confidentiality. It is frustrating. And I love working with the VA. I just wish that there wasn't so much red tape that kept us from actually working together when there is a crisis."
While everything for Laboda starts with her brother, she has learned that her life didn't end on that horrific day.
"Sometimes it is crazy to me that I have come this far, and (I) use Phillip's story to help other people or use Phillip's story to knock down doors and walls. But at the end of the day it's not about Phillip. It's about families." Azevedo-Laboda simply doesn't want other families to go through what her family went through.
"These three and a half years (since Phillip's death) has been a journey of growing and learning, and my whole train of thought is different. It's like (I'm) not the same person when this trauma had happened. But it's hard to find who you really are, and with helping others, and doing the work that we do, it heals the heart. It really does. It heals the heart, and when I see military families able to stay together, and come together, because of the work that we do -- that's exactly what we want," Azevedo-Laboda says.
And for Azevedo-Laboda, her work, or "her mission," as she calls it, will never be done. LEL