FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — More than 200,000 veterans live in Arkansas. Trauma leads many of them to live on the streets or commit suicide each year.
Retired Army First Sergeant Billy Goldston knows all too well how combat trauma can negatively affect lives.
“I entered service in 1989. Until I ended in 2015, it was combat almost every year,” says Goldston, “A lot of us don’t want to admit that we have PTSD, or TBI, or some of the newer things we’re facing, as sexual military trauma.”
Back home, he’s choosing to fight another battle — against veteran suicide, and homelessness.
“In Northwest Arkansas, we currently have 30 homeless veterans, six of them being chronic,” says Goldston.
The Department of Veteran Affairs reports in 2018 nearly 38,000 veterans were homeless. In 2017, more than 6,000 vets committed suicide. Zeroing in on Arkansas, the most recent VA data shows 251 veterans were homeless and 97 committed suicide.
“There’s a possibility that there were times when I wasn’t thinking clearly and could have been suicidal,” says Goldston.
It’s personal for Goldston. And he’s not alone in his fight for change. Retired sailor Ben Dykes is with the newly formed Northwest Arkansas Chapter of Concerned Veterans For America. The non-profit lobbies for federal legislation protecting veteran’s rights.
“Give them a better platform. And it’s pretty empowering when you take 100 veterans from across the nation and turn them loose in the capitol building. It really stirs some things up,” says Dykes.
The Arkansas legislature passed Act 551 this session to address veteran suicide. Republican Senator Trent Garner served in the U.S. Army and created the bill.
“To go from one of the worst states in veteran suicide to one of the best,” says Garner.
Act 551 was enacted in March and allows state veteran committees to study suicide risk factors and prevention and organize town-hall meetings to directly hear from vets and their families. Two have been held so far in Southern Arkansas. A tentative meeting is set for Northwest Arkansas in January.
“We had a young girl whose father committed suicide roughly a month ago, come and testify about some of the problems he faced in the VA. It’s extremely telling, see what we can do to make things better, what they felt we failed them as a government and what things we did good,” says Garner.
Garner says he will then use the study’s data to secure funding for better medical care.
“We’re gonna be part of the solution and were gonna face it head-on,” he says.
In the meantime, Goldston is out on the streets looking for struggling vets and handing them tactical backpack kits filled with clothing and hygiene products. The backpacks are the center of his organization, Salute Foundation Incorporated.
“Sustain daily life, get through the tough times,” he says.
Ultimately, Goldston hopes to get vets off the streets for good through a pilot program in the works called Forward Operating Base Salute. The 90-day program aims at reintegrating vets into society. Goldston says it will include job training, help with housing, and transportation.
He’s pitching the idea later this month on capitol hill. He wants to open the base in Rogers by Summer 2020 and then implement it nationwide if successful.
“We know that our legislators will stand behind us and put some weight on this program,” says Goldston, ” Help the people who provided the blanket of freedom that we all sleep under.”
His own struggles are helping him spread hope where hope is lost — one backpack at a time.
“I’m virtually looking at myself homeless on the streets,” he says, “I cannot not do anything.”
You can find more information on Salute Foundation Inc. and how to donate to the cause or volunteer, by visiting www.salutefoundation.org.