Balancing Safety And Privacy When A Veteran Goes Missing
A Wisconsin combat veteran was driving down the highway in February when he suddenly found his name, license plate number and mental health information broadcast on the radio, on television and posted on electronic billboards across the state.
"It felt very violating. Because I didn't want everyone who doesn't know me to know I have problems. It made me want to crawl into a bigger hole," he told NPR.
But the "Green Alert" might have saved his life.
"It's still affecting me dramatically and negatively, but at the same time it's quite possible that it's why I'm here right now," says the former Air Force staff sergeant. "It's kind of a double-edged sword."
NPR is not divulging the man's name because he never consented to have his information made public. A new Wisconsin law allows authorities to put that information out the same way an AMBER Alert publicizes missing children or a Silver Alert does for people with cognitive impairment. It's the first Green Alert to take effect — green for the color of military fatigues — though many states are considering the program.
The Wisconsin law is called the Corey Adams Searchlight Act. Adams was an Afghanistan vet from Milwaukee who went missing in 2017. His family feared he was suicidal. But police didn't immediately treat him as a missing person, because unlike children, adults have a right to disappear if they want to.
Adams was found dead weeks later. His family mobilized around the idea of an alert system for veterans and it became law in Wisconsin last year. That attracted a powerful advocate – the retired commander of U.S. special forces in Africa, Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc.
"We do it for our elderly because we have a tremendous amount of respect for our elderly. We do it for our children because we love our children. And we need to do it for our veterans, too," says Bolduc, who served more than 30 years on active duty.
Since his retirement in 2017, Bolduc has focused on the high suicide rate among veterans - which VA estimated is about 20 per day. He says the first 24 hours when someone goes missing are crucial to preventing suicide.
Bolduc got in contact with his New Hampshire senator, Democrat Maggie Hassan. Hassan has now co-sponsored a bill to promote Green Alerts nationally, with Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, herself an Iraq vet. Their bill would create a commission to suggest best practices for states setting up Green Alerts, incorporating concerns about veterans' privacy.
One state considering a Green Alert system is Connecticut, where Steve Kennedy is a veterans' advocate – and not a supporter of the program.
"I have struggled with these things. I have been suicidal myself. I've struggled with PTSD and depression," says Kennedy. "The last thing I would have wanted when I feel like everything is falling apart and I'm just completely hopeless is to have all of that sent out to every person I have ever known."
Kennedy says he's afraid lumping veterans in with lost children and those with cognitive impairment is stigmatizing. Plus, once a veteran has been Green Alerted, the news reports — potentially including information about the veteran's mental health — remain an enduring part of his online profile.
Only a few Green Alerts have actually been triggered - all in Wisconsin. One of them is the Air Force staff sergeant who spoke with NPR.
The former staff sergeant served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He's quick to say he never saw heavy combat, though his C-130 transport plane did get shot at.
Still, PTSD hit about a year after he got home in 2005. That's not unusual - the roots of post-traumatic stress aren't always clear. The majority of military suicides are people who didn't deploy or see combat.
He's been receiving care at the Madison, Wisc. VA, for over a decade and he likes it. But his problems haven't gone away, and in February, he says, he was suicidal, and on the phone with the VA's Veterans Crisis Line.
"They made clear they were going to do everything they could to find me," he says. And that was the point where they initiated that Green Alert and had my face and vehicle info and everything everywhere.
He headed out of state, toward a fellow-veteran's house. When he got there his friend quietly called the police. And luckily, the former staff sergeant says, there was another veteran among the group of cops who showed up. That vet kept things calm and talked him into going to the hospital.
He's of two minds about the Green Alert
"It probably helped find me. But I don't know that it helped me, if that makes sense," he says, " 'cause I still face on a daily basis a constant barrage of questions about my personal life.
"Someone walks up to me in the middle of a meal in a restaurant, and says, 'Hey are you that Green Alert guy?' And immediately I'm taken back to those emotions," he says.
"I certainly respect the gentleman's concerns," says retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. But Bolduc believes the Green Alert system can be done right, to balance privacy with saving lives.
"Any program we can get to help them is worth pursuing, you know," says Bolduc. "I want my loved one alive, right?"
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