September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A month where individuals and organizations across the country take the time to promote and bring awareness to suicide prevention and suicide prevention resources. As part of our National Suicide Prevention Month campaign, we sat down with Gary Sinise Foundation Vice President of Programs, Jim Ravella, to learn more about what the Foundation is doing to support the mental wellness needs of our nation's defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need and to learn more about his experience.
Jim joined the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2019 with over 26 years of service in the U.S. Air Force as an F-15E pilot and commander at the squadron and group level. Currently, Jim oversees the day-to-day execution of the Foundation's programmatic giving through our Chapter Development, Education Outreach, Events, Outreach, and R.I.S.E.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background serving in the U.S. Air Force?
It goes back to my dad; he was in the Army Air Corps and became a pilot, serving from 1943 – 1974. During his service, he was active through World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. So, I grew up around the Air Force and grew up around airplanes. I loved flying and loved everything about it.
After going to college and getting married, I was working as a salesman, and one day, while on my route, I watched the jets land at an Air Force base in San Antonio. Right then and there, I decided that I wanted to be a pilot, so I drove to the recruiter's office and walked in to join the Air Force. A month later, I was sworn in and went off to officer training school.
I started my career in January of 1986 and became an instructor for about four years, and then went off to fly the F-15E until 2007. I was blessed to do that because not many people have the opportunity.
With your own experience serving, what was your journey to mental wellness, how did you strengthen your own mental resiliency, and would you mind sharing important lessons you learned through this journey?
Speaking as a pilot, you must have a lot of confidence to do that kind of job. It's very much a bravado kind of career. In the military, the culture breeds the confidence you need to do the job. However, it's just a matter of time until life exceeds your abilities and what level you are ready to admit that differs. Often, there comes a point in life where you realize you are in over your head, and you can't deal with it. That turning point was my wife Andrea's battle with cancer.
Up until Andrea got sick, I was doing well in my career and moving into a leadership position. At the time, I thought it was great and that I was approaching the pinnacle of my career. At first, I felt that I could pick myself up and toughen up to get through it, but as it went on, I realized that I needed faith in something. Two years into Andrea's fight, I sat down with my squadron and said, "Here is my advice to you as your commander. You got to believe in something bigger than yourself, I don't care what that is, and I'm not telling you what it is, but if you think that life is just about you, you are not going to do well. There must be a purpose that is bigger than you in life because you are not the center of the universe, and if you don't have anything to ground you, you will crumble."
Later in my life, when I didn't feel comfortable talking with someone, I was able to find that through writing, I could finally express myself. As I was starting to journal about what I was feeling, I was able to tell people what was going on. The more open I was about what I was struggling with, the more strength I received from the community around me. If I had continued to isolate myself, I would have crumbled.
As the Foundation's Vice President of Programs, can you speak more about why mental wellness is so important at the Gary Sinise Foundation? And explain what we are doing nationwide to assist individuals struggling with their own mental wellness.
Before Gary Sinise played Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, Vietnam veterans were typically portrayed in a negative light. In the film, you see someone who goes through all the hardships but shows how his life transformed positively. It demonstrates that veterans are so valuable to society and that the skills and things they can do go beyond the day they were injured on the battlefield. When Gary saw how veterans responded to his character, he could relate to these veterans and where they were in their journey.
Since day one of creating the Gary Sinise Foundation (GSF), Gary has had a focus on mental wellness. Everything that the Foundation does programmatically and at the core of each initiative is for the mental wellness of our recipients. And now, ten years later, we want to continue evolving with the needs of these heroes and their families. Today, we've increased our emphasis on the treatment and support of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress (PTS) through the Foundation's Avalon Network. We owe it to our service members, veterans, and first responders because they raised their hand to serve and protect us. Whether in our community or globally, they were willing to sacrifice their lives to save others.
We also acknowledge that the family, although never technically raising their hand, is serving, and make no mistake, the spouse and the kids are serving alongside that veteran or first responder. These heroes cannot do what they do without their family's support.
From the beginning, Gary showed up, and just by showing up, it lifts people's spirits. With everything the Foundation does, we want to show up for you, wherever that may be in your journey. Whether that is a meal, a retreat, counseling, or connection to your unit, we want to let our nation's service members and their families know that you are not forgotten.
Through Gary Sinise Foundation partnerships, what other programs does the Foundation offer to help those struggling with their own mental wellness?
Under our Mental Wellness program, we have partnered with various organizations to carry out deeper support for our nation's defenders. Organizations such as the Marcus Institute for Brain Health, Boulder Crest, Warriors Heart, and more provide programs that align with our mission to address the mental wellness needs of the nation's service members, first responders, and veterans.
One good example is the Foundations Veterinarians for Valor program was inspired by Foundation Ambassador Leslie Smith and her dog, Isaac. Through watching Isaac grow older, it was apparent that there is a need to help service dogs as more and more people have utilized them for support. Today, we work with Texas A&M and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences to provide financial support for the medical care of service dogs.
Another great organization we work with is Never Alone Widows of Heroes. Through this partnership and the GSF empowerment gatherings, we offer opportunities for veteran and first responder widows to network and connect with one another. Through these programs, we hope to help equip them for life and to let them know that they are not forgotten.
Lastly, I'd like to highlight our partners at Brothers at War. Through their Resiliency Workshops, they offer free seminars to military units and their family members year-round. Their workshops help process what leads to PTSD and teach service members how to be open with their feelings.
If you or your loved one are seeking help, please consider the resources below:
Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255 for urgent care & press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. Veterans can also text 838255 or chat online at https://veteranscrisisline.net/.
TAPS: Visit the TAPS website if you are grieving a military suicide or for more information and resources. For 24/7 help call 800-959-8277. You can also visit: https://www.taps.org/suicidepostvention for more information.
Give an Hour: To access a network of licensed volunteer mental health providers at no cost to the military community, visit https://giveanhour.org/military/.