Veterans and Chief P.J. Smith speak about addressing mental health issues

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, September 5, 2023

SALISBURY — New Salisbury Police Chief P.J. Smith stopped by the monthly veteran’s lunch at the Veterans Social Center. Smith, who is not a veteran himself, talked about his experiences as the father of an Afghanistan veteran and answered questions about how the police department is addressing issues that the veterans at the center see in their community.

The monthly lunch is part of the drive by Kenny Hardin and the other volunteers at the Veterans Social Center to provide a way to bring veterans from all different age groups and other demographics together into one safe space.

“One of the biggest differences I hope we’ve made, and two of the biggest compliments we’ve got, are from two of the veterans who came in here. One said, ‘I wanted to thank you for never making me feel like a nobody when I’m here,’ and the other said he drank every morning when he woke up until he went to sleep. But he came in here and he said, ‘I don’t drink on the days I come in here,’” said Hardin.

Smith and his son’s story somewhat mirrors the same mental health issues that Hardin, who served in the Air Force himself, said many of the veterans struggle in the social center and throughout the country struggle with.

“When he got out of the Army, he didn’t transition back well. The first year was OK, it was a little rocky, and the second year it got a little bit worse. He suffered from severe PTSD. And I had times where I was the father that consoled him. ‘Son I’m going to go through this with you. I’m going to help you. We’ll get through it together, don’t worry about it.’ But I was dad. And the one person that my son never wanted to let down was dad,” said Smith during his speech to the veterans.

Smith said because his son idolized him, the same way Smith idolized his grandfather and many sons idolize their own fathers, he would hide the true depths of his struggles in order to keep from disappointing Smith. Eventually, Smith said he lost his son to his battles with mental health issues when he committed suicide on Mother’s Day six years ago.

When one of the veterans questioned Smith on how the Salisbury Police Department will address the mental health issues that the community faces today, he said that his experiences with his son and his own mental health after that experience color his approach to dealing with it.

“Not comparing mental illness to crime, but crime is not something that the police department’s going to fix alone. That’s going to take the whole community working with the police department. Mental illness is not something that Novant’s going to fix on its own, the VA is going to fix on their own. It’s going to take, not just our community, it’s going to take hundreds of communities. It’s going to take a larger approach in my eyes,” said Smith.

When asked about the rising homeless population in the community, as many of the attendees worried about homeless veterans, Smith said that he knows the department cannot just arrest their way out of the problem. Smith said that the department needs to become more proactive in addressing the homeless people and helping them find the correct avenues to get the help they need.

The Veteran’s Social Center holds a lunch for veterans and other members of the community on the first Saturday of every month. Hardin said that they try to have a speaker for each event and that although it is definitely aimed towards helping other veterans, they will not turn away anyone who is hungry and has an open mind.