Michael Fairman is an Afghanistan veteran (USN Hospital Corpsman, Fleet Marine Force) who served his country and many others in so doing for 19 years. His father was also a veteran and his son recently returned from his first deployment. Mike is also co-founder of Soldiers for Summits, which is focused on reducing the suicide epidemic afflicting returning veterans.
I was recently introduced to Mike through an old mutual friend Andy Politz, who I met while living and working at Mt. Rainier in 1980. My wife Betsy and I moved on a couple of years later to start a business while Andy returned to Rainier as a mountain guide alongside other climbers our age like Dave Hahn and Ed Viesturs (see Whittaker Mountaineering or International Mountain Guides).
Andy Politz on 2009 Mallory Irvine Everest Expedition
Andy and Mike have been taking vets into the mountains as part of the healing process for several years now, which I can personally confirm is a worthy effort. A life-long mountain lover, I also sought healing in the mountains during my youth when my late father (USAF Major Floyd L. Montgomery) returned from Vietnam with serious health issues that impacted our entire family. My father eventually recovered and enjoyed many good years, but a large number of veterans don’t.
Every 65 minutes, a military veteran commits suicide.
22 military veterans commit suicide every day.
31 percent of these suicides were veterans aged 49 and younger.
Every month nearly 1,000 veterans attempt to take their own lives.
Suicides among active duty personnel outpace killed in action.
From 2002 to December 2012, 253,330 service members were diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) of some kind.
11-20% of troops suffer from PTSD who served in OIF/OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom). 300,000-500,000 report to VA, presumably unknown number do not or have yet to report. (VA/Rand/PBS)
I reached out to Andy by email a couple of weeks ago to explore ways to help, and somewhat serendipitously Andy replied from the base of Kilimanjaro, which he and Mike had just climbed as part of Mike’s bid to climb the 7 summits to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and suicide prevention for veterans.
Summit for Soldiers
“A bunch of personally attached, self-funded combat veterans, families and mountaineers who are dedicated to continue to serve our veterans anyway we can.”
(All quotes are from Mike Fairman from email exchanges last week).
“Andy Politz has been awesome in helping me/us with our efforts, which includes my bid to climb the 7-summits of the world. So far this year I have reached the summits of Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, and an attempt of Everest, which was cut short due to the loss of 16 Sherpas in the icefall disaster.”
(MM: Planning another attempt of Everest in 2015).
MEMORy ACT (Mental-health Exposure Military Official Record Act)
“One thing our group has done is identify an simple, safe, cost-effective fix within the DOD to track, verify and document events to eliminate future backlogs at the VA (this is currently not being done outside of those that are seriously injured) and our “grassroots” veterans created effort has led to bipartisan legislation that has been introduced as a Bill into both the HOUSE and the SENATE, we also have endorsements from every major Veterans Service Organization like the VFW and IAVA. If and when this is enacted it will better serve every veteran of the future, currently 10’s of 1000’s of veterans are turned away because of poor/lacking documentation. (You can learn more at my website: www.MemoryAct.org )”
The goals of the MEMORy ACT reflect a similar philosophy to our work at Kyield, which is a holistic approach (Unified Network OS) for data management to close such gaps. One of the biggest challenges in caring for returning veterans is the well-known bureaucracy and archaic technology architecture which is extremely frustrating for anyone, so one can only imagine what it must be like for veterans to return home from war, discover a serious problem, and attempt to get help from the VA system only to learn that the evidence one needs to qualify for care will either take years to process, or wasn’t documented properly.
While healthcare and disability fraud is a serious problem across the U.S., accurate data on a real-time basis for the duration would allow for fraud prevention as well as proper care for those who are entitled to care. Importantly, such programs would move the DoD and VA towards much needed personalized healthcare that empowers active duty families as well as vets, which is critical for prevention, life science research, and optimizing a terribly inefficient healthcare system that is full of dedicated people, but decades behind where it should be. While I am one who agrees that the U.S. military needs the world’s most sophisticated weaponry, I’m also one who warns that we better start treating soldiers on the front lines with the same priority or it may not matter much.
“My reasons for launching on this challenge are: One, to show my example as a veteran who struggles with mental-health injuries (including a former suicide attempt) that you CAN take back control of your life and achieve “lofty” goals. Second, is to draw attention to our mission and efforts. And finally, the main reason is to carry a flag that bears the names of some of the warriors we have known and loss to suicide… the first name on the flag was one of my marines, LCPL Bob Wiley. The Wiley family is one of many families that have got behind this effort to raise awareness and help us continue to find ways to reduce the over 8000 veteran suicides that occur each year.”
“I totally agree with what you mention about veterans healing in the mountains. We launched on this “mission” because we realized our personal therapy came from our “adventures” and our analogy was that just like dealing/struggling with PTS/Depression you work together, trust your team, and experience the good/bad together, and eventually (in spite of all the circumstances out of our control) you reach the summit. Only to go down and do it all again!”
“I am grateful to the VA and my team there, they saved my life, but that said the system has become a catch-22 for so many folks in that it almost promotes the very stigma we are trying to destroy. What I mean is this, we go to the VA, they tell us we have a problem, they intervene, treat us and compensate us for the problem. Now we are “disabled” and the tendency is to just return to the place where we can find support and because we are now technically “disabled” we simply look to that system for guidance and support. Now, I suppose I’m a bit of a hypocrite because the legislation we have developed would make sure every veteran who needs help can get it quickly without obstacles, but our intention is directed towards a DOD fix on the front end to ensure people get into the VA system that was designed to do all of the above to help get them back on their feet.”
“For me the VA was the place to “reset” my physical life by sorting through my issues, diagnosis and treatments to make sure I can be safe, but the healing and repair comes after we “reset” and realize that the things we endured are in the past, and we CAN take back control of our lives… And that comes from engaging in life, reconnecting with family, finding a new purpose outside of the military and for me/us that is the mountains. A big part of the endeavor at SfS plays into my own personal therapy! In fact, many veterans that have launched on their respective causes/missions do so as part of their recovery/therapies.”
“My big vision for SfS (after we finish up this legislative opportunity we have been given) is to see it grow into state chapters that become an outdoor gathering/support group for veterans and those interested, along with a place of refuge and resource for veterans specific issues. In other words, you go out for some weekend adventures with other veterans, have a place where you can talk about what is going on, and point folks in the appropriate direction for what they need. Kind of like a new version of the VFW, but built around outdoor activities instead of just sitting around drinking in a dark room.”
I’d like to thank Mike for his efforts and candor. Having grown up in a military family with many friends who lost fathers in battle, I vividly recall being part of a culture that while supporting each other as family, are also trained to withhold information on a pragmatic need-to-know basis (even from family). Combined with mental health challenges and a society back home that is typically clueless to the challenges and sacrifice required of a great many so that the majority can live in relative peace, communications can be a real problem, particularly when awareness in a democracy is necessary to move the biggest mountains of all in the form of the DoD, VA, and members of the U.S. Congress.
How Business Leaders Can Help
My company is deeply involved in the issues surrounding optimized healthcare, and we’ve been working with the DoD for many years on related technology. If Kyield is even modestly successful as we commercialize our technology, we plan to sponsor Mike’s vision for a new kind of VFW focused on beneficial outings in nature. In the interim, a huge opportunity exists for private companies to sponsor the formation of a national organization dedicated to Mike’s vision and mission. It’s clear to me that the time has come to support this worthy effort, assist with funding, and help set up a sustainable organizational structure with local chapters. I think SfS could scale well and rapidly with assistance.
While such a sponsorship would seem particularly well-matched to companies like USAA, DoD contractors, and pharmaceutical firms, the scale of PST is so vast that it literally impacts every community, which also means it’s an opportunity for giants in retail, banking, tech companies, and many others.
In addition to the tragic ongoing human catastrophe that falls on a quiet minority of families that pay the ultimate price, the economic costs cannot be ignored. Estimates range from $1 trillion to $3 trillion for lifetime care of veterans labeled disabled, much of which is related to pre-existing cases of PST and traumatic brain injury, some unknown large portion of which can be mitigated. Business leaders clearly have a moral, ethical, and financial obligation to engage and assist.
How Journalists Can Help
While the greater problem of PST and VA challenges have been reported, Summit for Soldiers has received little exposure, and it’s a great story waiting to be told. In addition, the MEMORy ACT has a deadline in January so more awareness is needed a.s.a.p. The issues surrounding data management, personalized medicine, preventative care, and economics are timely, relevant, and extremely important.
How Individuals Can Help
Below are links to immediately support efforts underway, whether through contacting your representatives in the House or Senate to support the MEMORy ACT and support veterans generally, small group efforts Andy and Mike are involved with, or the 7 summit bid to raise awareness.