Andrew Vernon: Army veteran and KPE alum fights to raise awareness about veteran suicides

Andrew Vernon is on a mission to reverse a staggering statistic about military veterans: On average, 20 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States. It’s a number that has held steady for a decade, and Vernon says it’s time to do something about it.

“One veteran suicide is one too many, and we as a nation need to take responsibility for the people who protect us,” says Vernon, who grew up in Presque Isle and earned a Master of Education in kinesiology and physical education from University of Maine in 2010.

In a recent opinion piece published in the Portland Press Herald and the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Vernon called for dedicating more resources to veterans’ mental health and reducing veteran suicides. It’s a personal issue for the 37-year-old, a military veteran himself. Prior to attending UMaine, Vernon served in the U.S. Army, so he knows the challenges veterans face as they seek to reintegrate into civilian life.

“I hit a tipping point over the past couple months when I started seeing and hearing about more suicides in the media, and felt like the plans being implemented by the (Department of Veterans Affairs) and other stakeholders simply weren’t effective as they could have been,” Vernon says.

He’s already noticed positive change from the opinion piece. It’s been shared hundreds of times across various social media platforms, and Vernon says he’s received numerous phone calls and emails from foundations, politicians and journalists who want to highlight the issue.

“This is something we all need to take on, especially at the community level where veterans return after completion of their service,” he says. “I want to be the one who can help make a difference with this significant issue.”

For Vernon, attending graduate school at UMaine after his service helped his own transition back to being a civilian and set him on a path that is now allowing him to help his fellow veterans. Before going into the Army, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Hofstra University. But he was struggling to find a career in his chosen field.

“I decided to brainstorm what the future would hold next, and thought the best step would be to attend the University of Maine and earn a master’s degree,” Vernon says.

At UMaine, he was involved in the Student Veterans of America chapter and held a coaching externship with the track and field team.

After he graduated, Vernon went to work at VA, where his first position was as frontline staff, helping veterans navigate the complicated and often frustrating ins and outs of accessing care. Later, he spent five years as coordinator and cardio-pulmonary rehabilitation therapist with the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the department, where one of the position requirements was having a master’s in kinesiology.

In 2017, Vernon left VA for a job at Booz Allen Hamilton, a worldwide consulting firm that works with the federal government on military and veterans’ portfolios. While assigned to a large-scale project with the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington, D.C., Vernon says he recognized the importance of making services — especially mental health services — more readily accessible to veterans, particularly those in rural states like Maine.

“Born and raised in Maine, having family members all across the state who are veterans and have received both public and private health care, mental health care is an issue because Maine does have difficulties recruiting and retaining providers,” he says.

He adds that recent advances in telemedicine hold promise for improving rural veterans’ access to care, but will require collaboration between government and private industry to make sure they reach veterans with the most need.

Vernon earned a second master’s degree in health administration — health policy and management from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in 2018. Again, he credits the education he received at UMaine for helping him get accepted into one of the top schools of public health in the country.

“My UMaine education has been very rewarding. The degree has helped me step into different roles. Each of the roles have challenged me and put me in a position to develop and implement programs and services to help all populations, especially the veteran population,” says Vernon.

Presque Isle, Maine

Talk about your military service. In what branch did you serve? What was your military occupation?
I was in the U.S. Army. My MOS — military occupational specialty — was intelligence analyst. I graduated top three in my company for physical fitness in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. MOS training was at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. The MOS studied intelligence — analyzing images, fixed and moving targets, geospatial data, identified military installations, facilities, weapons systems. I had a top-secret clearance.

How did you get interested in addressing the issue of veteran suicides?
Being a veteran and receiving benefits and health care from VA, I’ve seen firsthand the lives of veterans — the different experiences they have gone through, the different eras of military service from World War I to present. The issue of veteran suicides has not really been a focus until recent years. This is an issue that’s been going on for close to a decade. Twenty service members and veterans take their lives every day, and that number has not changed despite the money and effort invested in VA, the collaboration and communication between stakeholders, including veterans’ service organizations like the American Legion, VFW, Wounded Warrior Project and others. I felt this needed more attention.

What’s one message you really want people to take away from your work on this issue?
When veterans go into the service they are like any other citizen. Their lives change when they go through military service, whether during training, service overseas, or at war. Service members and veterans put their lives on the line every day doing the job they volunteered to do: protect and defend our nation. When transition back into civilian life after military service, the responsibility lies on all of us to help give them their lives back, to do whatever we can to understand them, and to provide them with adequate resources to succeed.

Why UMaine?
When I left the military, I had to figure out next steps and felt like I was at a standstill with finding a career in exercise science. I was going through some concerns myself with the transition from military to civilian life. I had the opportunity to use the GI Bill, and felt like the University of Maine had an outstanding reputation both academically and athletically. UMaine was close to home. The education I was seeking to receive, after meeting professors and reviewing the curriculum, appeared to be exactly what I was looking for in a university program, which influenced my decision to attend.

Did you work with a professor or mentor who made your UMaine experience better?
Dr. Stephen Butterfield was my adviser — excellent professor, always willing to help, always had his door open, and always worked to make things happen based on my individual interests. My interest at the time was going into professional sports or collegiate athletics, and he was able to assist me in getting a coaching externship with the track and field team. I attended practices, meets, and collaborated with the coaching staff to help get athletes in optimal shape to compete. I would say this was one of the highlights of my overall experience at UMaine. Dr. Butterfield opened the door to my interests during our conversations about possible career paths following graduation. Dr. Bob Lehnhard, another excellent professor, helped me grow personally and academically.

What difference has UMaine made in your life in helping you reach your goals?
UMaine helped me develop connections with sports organizations, including the Montreal Canadiens and the Derek Jeter Foundation. UMaine was also the stepping stone for me to gain employment at VA, advocating and providing medical treatment for my fellow veterans. The degree at UMaine helped me gain admission to Columbia University. Their admissions team recognized the thorough education I received while at UMaine and took that into consideration when admitting me into their program. The cohort consisted of a small and diverse group of 30 students, but the exciting piece was having been given the opportunity to learn from some of the most outstanding scholars in the school of public health. UMaine helped me develop and maintain personal interests and skills where I was seeking to grow — in areas of effective communication, transparency, collaboration with others for the sake of sharing knowledge and experiences, forming positive relationships, and positive continuing relationships for that matter. I continue to maintain contact with classmates and professors.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
The Alfond Arena. I attended hockey games and the fans were consistently energized — not necessarily about winning or losing, but simply having a nationally recognized Division I hockey team in Orono, Maine. I was able to meet and talk with others who held the same passion for the game, and interact with players and coaches. A rich, positive history of talent and supportive fan base made the Alfond a great place to visit.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
I took the tools and resources that I gained while at UMaine and continue to use them, not only in my career but in my personal life as well. My advice to others is, if UMaine has taught you something you believe can enhance your life or your career, you keep those items in your toolbox and bring them with you wherever you go in the future. That’s what I have done and the result has turned out to be very rewarding.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751