Mt. Carmel’s Next Chapter aims to reduce veteran suicides

News  /  Military

by Amanda Miller Luciano

On average, more than one military veteran died by suicide per week in El Paso County in 2021, a staggeringly high number statistically that places the county among the worst in the country for veteran suicide rates. Now, there’s a new central place for veterans to seek help.

Next Chapter is a holistic program aimed at reducing veteran suicide rates by providing a centralized place where vets and their families can get help. The pilot veteran suicide prevention program, headed by Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, is funded with $1.66 million from Senate Bill 21-129 through June 30, 2025.  

“We wanted to bring nonprofits together to serve our veterans,” says Ken Curtner, lead clinician at UCHealth’s Veterans Services branch. “There wasn’t a whole lot of cross talk about what we do and how we all serve our veteran population.”

Next Chapter creates an umbrella with one central point of contact for veterans in need.

Rodger Johnson, the Next Chapter program manager, talks with veterans and assesses their needs and then introduces them to the nonprofit contacts who will help them with scheduling counseling appointments, finding jobs, housing, food assistance, medication assistance, financial planning, in-home senior care, or whatever the veteran or their families may need.

“Every single person who comes through Next Chapter talks to Rodger,” Curtner says. “That way no one falls through the cracks, and they have a person they know they can contact.”

Johnson is a Licensed Professional Counselor candidate who recently graduated with his master’s degree and had been interning at Mt. Carmel as a counselor when the Next Chapter program was developed. He served 12 years in the Army and was deployed five times to the Middle East.   

“I’ve dealt with PTSD myself,” Johnson says. “I’m dealing with PTSD myself, I should say — dealing with things I saw in the war and the people I lost.”

Johnson dealt with suicidal ideation and sought help while still on active duty, and had a few in-patient stays to help him overcome the desperation he felt.

“I didn’t care about life,” he says, “particularly my own life.”

He worked with counselors and therapists through in-patient and out-patient programs as he prepared to exit the military.

“It was a lot of work,” he says, “a lot of talking about things I didn’t want to talk about, bringing things to the surface about what I’d seen and done in Afghanistan. It was going through the steps; I realized those things don’t have control over me. I learned coping skills.”

He also learned that he wanted to be there for his brothers and sisters in arms and to help them through those dark times the way he had been helped through them. So, he pursued a career in mental and behavioral health counseling. His current role is an ideal fit for him. 

Since Next Chapter launched in June, Johnson has helped 247 El Paso County veterans find the healing services they need.

He is grateful he was able to get the help he needed, but he knows it would have been a lot tougher if he weren’t active-duty when he realized he needed help.

“Without the military, I don’t know where I would have gone,” he says.

That’s a common problem for veterans, Curtner says. There are many resources out there, but until now, they weren’t all coordinated.

Veterans are finding Next Chapter in all sorts of ways. Some see the TV advertisements, bus ads or hear radio ads. Others are referred by first responders, who are being educated about the program. 

Part of the state funding for Next Chapter includes a massive marketing campaign, which was recognized for its excellence at a recent American Advertising Federation award ceremony.

“We’re doing whatever we can to get the word out,” says Lindsey Caroon, marketing director for Next Chapter.

She says several of the veterans who have found help through the program came to Johnson and asked if they could help get the word out. They volunteered to share their stories in television advertisements.

“They’re saying, … ‘I know,  I’ve been there. Here is where you can get help,’” Caroon says.

Johnson says Veterans Affairs has also been a good referral source. 

“They’re booked and understaffed,” he says. “The turnaround time can be three months. We know that eight weeks might be seven weeks too long to wait.”

With help from community partners including UCHealth, Mt. Carmel and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Next Chapter is able to get clients in to meet with a counselor within a week.

“We will get you your own private therapist,” Curtner says.

He said UCHealth has three staff therapists who are dedicated to helping veterans. They also have a network of vetted and trusted partners to whom they can make referrals. The partners are committed to prioritizing Next Chapter participants so they won’t have to wait to be seen.

“From there, there are no out-of-pocket costs,” Curtner says. “Next Chapter will cover the rest.”

Editor’s note: A title in this article has been edited.

We’re doing whatever we can to get the word out. — Lindsey Caroon

Beyond having ready availability, Curtner says that all of the counselors involved in the program are uniquely qualified to work with veterans.

“Every single person on our team is a veteran or a family member of a veteran,” Curtner says. “The people we have brought in and who we have on our team understand. Most of us have been deployed in some sort of combat operation. So, we get you.”

While Next Chapter and the state funding behind it are focused primarily on mental and behavioral health, the program takes a holistic approach that goes beyond counseling.

Johnson connects the veterans who contact him to all types of services. Counseling won’t immediately solve addiction or food insecurity or the threat of homelessness. Those problems need practical and immediate attention before a veteran can focus on the mental health journey ahead, Johnson says.

Mt. Carmel can help with a lot of those services, and Johnson can make connections to other nonprofits that can help with the rest.

Next Chapter is also designed to help the families of veterans.

“The spouse is really along for the ride in a military family,” says Caroon, who is a military spouse herself. “When the troops come home, you see spouses kiss at the airport, but what happens after they get in the car and go home? There is a lot of stress in that reunification process.”

Johnson says he has heard from spouses who are dealing with their own challenges watching their partners wake screaming at night with PTSD.

As part of the state funding, military families are a priority. That’s key, Johnson says, because the veteran can’t thrive if he or she is worried about a family member.

The program also allows the veteran to define who is family.

“So, if you have a homeless veteran sharing a tent with someone and he says that’s his brother, they’re eligible,” Caroon says. “That was great foresight.”

The program is serving the children of veterans in need of play therapy all the way up to a 98-year-old World War II veteran. They all need different services and Next Chapter is nimble enough to provide individualized care plans for every veteran who calls to ask for help. They meet veterans where they are and offer whatever help they are ready to accept when they’re ready to accept it, Curtner says.

“Everyone has a passion for helping veterans,” he says. “It’s not just lip service. We really want to help our brothers and sisters in arms.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit, email or call 888-719-VETS (8387).

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