(TND) — The tragedy of suicide is personal for Army veteran and celebrity chef Andre Rush.
So, when USAA and its partners launched an ambitious goal of cutting the veteran suicide rate in half by 2030, he knew he had to do what he could to use his platform to amplify their message.
“When USAA came, it came at the right time to talk about this topic that has been stigmatized for so very long, that was so personal, and also give an opportunity to open up and be very transparent to a lot of people about who I am,” he said Thursday.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and USAA’s "Face the Fight" initiative wants to pool expertise and resources to save the lives of our veterans.
Since 2001, more than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide, driven by a veteran suicide rate that is 1.5 times the rate of the general population, according to Face the Fight.
The rate of veteran suicide has been as much as 66% higher than the suicide rate for the general public over the last 20 years.
And suicide is the second leading cause of death among veterans under age 45, the Department of Veterans Affairs says.
An estimated 50,000 more veterans will die by suicide this decade if we don't act now, Face the Fight estimates.
Face the Fight has expanded to more than 50 members in just a few short months and is already on its second round of philanthropic funding.
USAA and Face the Fight’s founding partners, Humana Foundation and Reach Resilience, an Endeavors Foundation, have dedicated $41 million to the effort.
The coalition includes corporate partners and military support organizations.
“We think this is an opportunity where only 1% of the U.S. population puts on a uniform, but 100% of the population can help support this effort,” Brandon Carter, president of USAA Life Insurance Co., said shortly after Face the Fight launched.
Rush is one of the faces of Face the Fight.
And he’s a familiar face to many.
He stars in the Tubi show “Kitchen Commando” and has millions of social media followers.
He’s served presidents and won awards with his cooking.
Rush spent over two decades in the Army, retiring as a master sergeant.
He started out in combat arms but was introduced to the culinary world while serving.
Cooking was an escape for him, a morale booster, and it connected him with his mother back home while serving in the Army.
“I fell in love with it even more so, because it was part of my therapy,” he said. “I didn't know at the time that cooking would save my life.”
Cooking is a passion for Rush. But so is breaking the stigma around suicide in an effort to save lives.
Suicide is such a touchy subject, he said. But it’s one we should never become complacent about.
He’s lost people close to him to suicide.
He relayed a story of a young soldier he knew who took his own life.
And earlier this year, tragedy struck his family.
A veteran carried out a murder-suicide that took the lives of three children, including his daughter, and the life of an active-duty soldier.
“Stepfather took their lives and then took his own life, which he was also military,” Rush said.
Every life lost is a tragedy, but he said the devastation doesn’t stop there.
The impact of one suicide ripples through that person’s friends and family, he said.
Rush said he’s been open about his own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That's OK ... but it's not OK not to get support,” he said.
Suicide prevention is tricky business, as the reasons that drive someone to take their own life can be diverse and complicated.
Jim Lorraine, president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership, said recently that it’s a mistake to put suicide prevention solely “in a mental health bucket.”
Relationships, isolation, operational tempo in the military, and financial problems can all be major factors in someone’s decision to attempt suicide, he said.
And psychiatrist Ellen Utley, of the youth-focused advocacy group The Jed Foundation (JED), said that talking openly about suicide is "very, very important" to saving lives.
A person contemplating suicide is often in a very lonely place, and reaching out to them has the power to instill hope, she said.
“It's critical, it's absolutely essential and very helpful,” Utley said.
If you’re not equipped to have that conversation, find someone who is.
“It's a community working together to address this problem,” she said.
Rush said Face the Fight’s goal of cutting the veteran suicide rate in half by 2030 is ambitious, but he’s confident it can be achieved.
“Optimism is an understatement, I'm a believer in this one,” he said.
He said his whole life has been trials and tribulations, and that’s taught him that amazing things are achievable.
“We're going to do it together,” Rush said.
Don’t stay silent if you need help.