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Amid Growing Mental Health Concerns, Veterans Help Veterans

About 1,000 Texans work as volunteers for the state-funded Military Veteran Peer Network. The 83rd Legislature recognized their work and is helping the organization grow its ranks. This story is part of our 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.

Bryan Escobedo's smile is proof that social gravity — a force that draws like-minded people together — can be particularly potent in the military.

"I know what it's like to have the world lose all of its vibrancy and just go into this spiral," said Escobedo, the 28-year-old retired Marine Corps sergeant and Houston native. "But I know how to come back from it, and that's what my job is."

Escobedo served three tours of duty in Iraq. During his second and third deployments, he survived attacks in which insurgents bombed his vehicle. He was awarded a Purple Heart, but after he returned to civilian life in 2008, he said the attacks triggered intense post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression — conditions he overcame largely through counseling and peer support.

"We're the men and women that decided to get better, and to become an advocate for people," Escobedo said.

He is now a full-time peer counselor and public relations manager at the Lone Star Veterans Association in Houston, as well as a volunteer coordinator with the Military Veteran Peer Network in Texas.

Escobedo is one of the network's 20 volunteer coordinators. The state-funded program works with about 1,000 veterans, including many from the Vietnam War, who donate their time to reconnecting soldiers with people in their local communities as well as available government and nonprofit resources.

The 83rd Legislature recognized the network's value. State lawmakers mandated increasing veterans' access to mental health professionals. They appropriated $4 million more in the 2014-15 Department of State Health Services budget to help service members, veterans and their families connect with peer volunteers.

The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs estimate that of the state's 1.6 million veterans, at least 250,000 have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Of those, about 20 percent are expected to require mental health services. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, an average of 22 veterans take their own lives every day.

State Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, author of the measure, said that veterans and their families had sacrificed so much that it was the state's duty to help them reintegrate.

"It's on us. It's not on them," Menéndez said. "They did what we asked them, and it's on us to know better. It's like knowing that we caused a disease or we caused an injury, and we're doing nothing about it."

The law will allow the network to increase its ranks to 1,500 peer-to-peer volunteers by this time next year, with the goal of inspiring many of the men and women who receive counseling to further the mission.

The money will also pay for 10 additional coordinators and seven licensed mental health professionals — combat veterans who will be stationed around the state to expand access to care.

There is a clear need for more "boots on the ground" in Texas, said Julianne Sanford, a Jacksonville-based volunteer coordinator with the network.

"There are a lot things we can do to reach more veterans," she said. "This population is not the easiest to reach. They don't expect help. They don't demand help."

Sanford, whose husband and two children are active-duty soldiers, said the suicide rate had prompted her to get involved in rural East Texas.

"I'm very excited about this money, because in the rural environment, resources are limited. Access to your VA is limited. Transportation is limited," Sanford said.

Coordinators say their time spent building the network is a calling.

For Escobedo, it's about restoring smiles lost in war, a process that he has been through himself.

"I survived," he said. "I'm here. I'm happy."

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