By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
With concerns over mental health and homelessness among returning American soldiers, Priority Soldier, Inc, a nonprofit organization celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is providing aid to Alabama’s veterans through psychiatric and counseling services, post-military job training and fostering community.
“I started it when I returned from Iraq and wanted to help veterans,” said Ken Phillips, founder and CEO of Priority Soldier and a retired lieutenant colonel from the Army. “We started off…helping homeless veterans get off the street, and when we helped them, we put them in housing, and we surrounded them with resources.”
Phillips started the organization in 2011, the year after he returned from Iraq and had trouble returning to civilian life. “I remember coming home [to the states] . . . When I first got back, I was still in alert mode. I slept upstairs, and I would put a chair by the door just because I was still waiting. My mindset was still thinking, ‘You’ve got to protect yourself,’” he said.
Priority Soldier has six employees who work with individual counselors and organizations to connect veterans to health care and job training.
George Bowman, director of operations for Priority Soldier and former Jefferson County Commissioner, said Priority Soldier works closely with Veteran’s Affairs (VA). According to Bowman, top priorities for the head of the VA, Secretary Denis McDonough, are veteran homelessness and veteran suicides.
“Right now, from the global war on terror, we have lost more than 30,000 soldiers, veterans, to suicide. That’s over two divisions of people, in number, that have taken their life,” Bowman said.
As of Dec. 31, the most recent numbers of documented suicides among both active and reserve members of the military in 2020 was 571, according to the Department of Defense (DoD). While the data are less recent for suicide among veterans, the numbers are still high. In 2018, 6,435 veterans died from suicide. According to the VA, the average number of veteran suicide deaths per day has remained between 17 and 18 annually since 2008.
Addressing veteran suicides can be complicated. Bowman, a retired, two-star major general, who served in the Army for 34 years said there are many contributing factors to the high rates of suicide among veterans. The “revolving door” nature of current deployment is one of the problems, he said.
“Our health system is such now that they can repair injuries and help veterans recover from injuries, and what that does is put them back in the queue to be redeployed again and again,” he said.
This consistent redeployment means soldiers get more chances to seriously injure themselves and experience more of the stress of war, Bowman added.
To help veterans back into civilian life, Priority Soldiers works with multiple psychiatrists and licensed counselors, in addition to bringing veterans together.
“It’s building a relationship of trust. If you think about it, veterans like other veterans. They feel at home, they feel much more comfortable, they have shared experiences that they have all done,” Bowman said. “Getting them to open up to folks that they don’t know—most veterans are kind of closed, they kind of keep it to themselves—and, that’s ingrained in the culture, to gut it up and tough it out.”
In Birmingham, Priority Soldier has worked with many other partners to also address homelessness, working with the city’s Operation Reveille, in which organizations and individuals work together to house homeless veterans in 24 hours.
The group works with the University of Alabama and the Alabama Work Force Training Center to prepare veterans in trades and skills more useful for civilian life, including leadership and communication courses, as well as construction and factory courses.
While Priority Soldiers serves over 300 veterans in Alabama, there are more than 400,000 in the state, and the number will only increase as soldiers in Afghanistan should all be back in the United States by Sep. 11.
Bowman said the team at Priority Soldier can help these veterans but that the organization “has to get them into the program and into the process so that they can be taken care of in a way that helps them.”
To speed up the process, Priority Soldier is currently trying to work with the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, a DoD initiative which connects National Guard and Reserve members to resources like health care and education, to get in contact with soldiers from Alabama before they even get back home.
“They’ll know the resources that are out there, they’ll know who to contact, and they’ll know where to get help from,” Phillips said. “A lot of times, when you come back, all you want to do is relax. You don’t want to talk to anybody, you’re not trying to fly to a VA, but after six months have passed, and you’re still at home sitting, you have to go get help.”
Priority Soldier, Inc. can be contacted at (205) 379-1204.