BLAIR COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — May is both Military Appreciation Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s an opportunity to honor our servicemen and women and highlight the support systems available to guide a growing number of veterans facing mental health challenges.

For Matthew Gibbons, leaving his hometown of Altoona to serve in Iraq left him in a position he never imagined.

“The day I was injured changed my life in a way that I never would have thought would happen,” said Gibbons. “I’ve had lots of bad experiences and good experiences that followed those.”

Gibbons lost his eye and returned home a Purple Heart veteran. He said the loss added another obstacle on the road back to civilian life.

“It was cumbersome,” said Gibbons. “It was very difficult.”

Talking about physical and hidden wounds is what Gibbons said he’s found to be the most helpful.

“I’ve had some challenges myself with things that I didn’t know how to deal with and I’m not certain that I still know how to deal with,” said Gibbons. “Sharing those experiences, I think, is beneficial for the veteran population.”

He now serves as a social worker at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center alongside over 300 other veteran employees.

“It’s easier to have that conversation with somebody who may have the ability to relate to what you did, and what you went through, and how you experience things,” said Gibbons.

No matter what a veteran is facing, Mental Health Social Work Supervisor Eileen Woods encourages connecting with the Veterans Association.

“They can walk into our lobby and say, you know, ‘I really need to talk to someone’,” said Woods. “We have mental health groups available today that we can set you up.”

Woods said the Altoona VA serves about 4,000 people each month for mental health. Their numbers are up 7% from last year.

“COVID has created just a weariness among many, many people. A lack of connectedness with others,” said Woods.

Veterans can connect virtually, expanding accessibility. If someone lacks the means to connect online, Woods said the VA will work to provide them with the technology needed.

“In a rural community, that is extraordinarily important,” said Woods. “Pre-COVID, we were seeing veterans from 3 counties in our drug and alcohol groups, we are now seeing veterans in 8 counties.”

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While there’s no waitlist in Altoona, Darrell Owens, veteran and director of government relations for America’s Warrior Partnership, said there’s a different story happening nationwide.

“Last March, the secretary of the VA came out and said there is a ten million appointment backlog for health appointments,” said Owens.

Owens stressed the importance of veteran suicide awareness. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 270 Pennsylvania veterans committed suicide in 2019 alone.

“The VA needs to make sure veteran suicide is the number one issue at the VA,” said Owens. “I know the Congress and the American people have put a lot of resources into supporting veterans and it’s time they got a return on that investment.”

Both the Altoona VA and Owens said mental health is strongly related to your quality of life, including job stability, financial stability, housing security, and food security. They said reaching out directly to the VA or the American’s Warrior Partnership can help veterans find support on these topics and more, all in one place.