St. Luke’s Penn Foundation’s Victory for Veterans Program Recognized for Reducing Veteran Suicides

en flag
es flag

Featured Image: The Victory for Veterans peer support program at St. Luke’s Penn Foundation has received a 2024 PA Suicide Prevention Award from the Commonwealth Prevention Alliance (CPA) in recognition of its success in reducing veteran suicide. Team members accepting the award are: Trish Nye, Robert Brands, Kristin Pogwist, Chris Troxell, Jane Straw.

The program is funded by a Veterans Affairs grant that supports efforts to reduce veteran suicide.

The Victory for Veterans peer support program at St. Luke’s Penn Foundation has received a 2024 PA Suicide Prevention Award from the Commonwealth Prevention Alliance (CPA) in recognition of its success in reducing veteran suicide. The award is given to individuals and groups that are making significant contributions to improving their communities, schools and beyond through prevention and positive mental health initiatives.  Victory for Veterans is one of four 2024 award recipients from the Northeast Pennsylvania Region.

The goal of Victory for Veterans is to reduce veteran suicide. Carbon County has the highest number of veteran suicides of all the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

Victory for Veterans is a group of certified peer specialists who provide outreach, counseling and education to veterans who may feel isolated, are potentially at risk for suicide and are in need of mental health services. The program enables veterans to talk with another veteran about their military experiences or difficulty adjusting to civilian life. In addition, the program assists veterans with challenges of everyday life, such as finding a job, housing, educational and vocational programs and counseling services.

“We are honored to be recognized for our important work of helping to prevent veteran suicides,” said Robert Brands, the Victory for Veterans manager. “We know a lot of veterans in Carbon and Schuylkill counties are struggling with the challenges of everyday life, and our program is designed to help them overcome and navigate the many barriers and issues they face, including when transitioning from military to civilian life.”

Victory for Veterans was launched in the late winter 2022 in Carbon County and expanded to include Schuylkill County in September 2023. The program is funded through a $535,424 grant from the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It is one of many services St. Luke’s provides to those who have served their country through military service.

Certified Victory for Veterans peer support specialists draw upon their lived experiences of recovery from substance use or mental health issues, along with skills learned in formal training, to support veterans struggling with similar problems. Because they can understand veterans’ issues, peer specialists are uniquely qualified to offer practical skills/knowledge, empathy, hope and insight, said. Brands, a Persian Gulf War combat veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987 to 1991 in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

In addition to peer support, Victory for Veterans connects veterans to behavioral health and substance use counseling available through the VA and St. Luke’s. Its case managers refer veterans to community organizations that provide housing and employment services.

Supporting veterans

In case after case, veterans in need of help and support have been finding it through the St. Luke’s Victory for Veterans program in Carbon County, and from the grant from the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Fox joined the Army in 2014 and was a sniper instructor at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Known for a life of generosity and kindness to others in need, Fox died by suicide on July 21, 2020, at the age of 25. The grant named in his honor allows the Penn Foundation – which became part of St. Luke’s in 2021 – to provide peer support services to veterans.

Since January 2024, more than 63 veterans/family members have sought help through the program. They include veterans who were so depressed that they barely left their homes and are now gainfully employed and seeking additional education and training. Some were homeless and are now proud homeowners. Others are so enthusiastic about their personal growth and recovery that they are volunteering to support fellow veterans.

“All of this would not have happened if we weren’t part of St. Luke’s,” said Jane Straw, Director of Operations of Residential and Rehabilitation Programs for the St. Luke’s Penn Foundation, who oversees a staff of 90 spread across 10 programs in Bucks, Montgomery, Carbon and Schuylkill counties. “When we joined St. Luke’s, we had the infrastructure we needed to apply for a grant of this size. This grant allowed us to expand peer support services that we’ve been doing for 16 years to create this program to serve at-risk veterans and their families.

Because of the high rate of veteran suicide in Carbon County, it has been a particular area of focus for the foundation, Straw said. Contributing factors may include the county’s rural nature, a shortage of medical services, lack of permanent employment opportunities and perhaps a hesitancy on the part of veterans to seek support.

“That’s why outreach is particularly important, and we’ve done a lot of that,” said Straw. “We’ve been very successful is linking veterans to services provided through the Veterans Administration, helping with access to housing, food, job opportunities – anything related to the social determinants of health. We also conduct evidence-based suicide assessments in one-on-one settings that are part of the VA grant requirement.”

A “Ruck and Reflect” outing. Program Manager Robert Brands at back left.


A key component of the program’s success is its holistic and inclusive approach. Since all of the staff members are either veterans or are from military families, they have a deeper understanding of the broader family dynamic, Straw said, “and they make a point to meet with the entire family because they understand that the issues and needs aren’t just related to the veteran.”

The veterans-supporting-veterans approach is what Brands, the Victory for Veterans manager, identifies as the distinguishing “secret behind the success” of the program. “Our peer counselors know what the veterans have been through,” Brands said. “They’ve shared the lived experience. They understand them and the unique challenges they face. This allows them to quickly establish a trusting relationship, which is so important. We sometimes describe it as going from ‘hero to zero’ as the veterans try to find a new sense of purpose and fulfillment in their civilian life and our counselors understand that dynamic.”

Brands is credited with helping to develop – along with fellow network employees – the free, community-based Victory for Vets support program out of a desire to help veterans improve their lives. As part of the program’s outreach efforts, Brands implemented the “Ruck and Reflect” program, which encourages veterans to hike with peer counselors and share experiences and allows non-ambulatory vets to participate in an outdoor experience on an accessible trail. “That program also gives other vets the opportunity to volunteer and get out there with their fellow vets and support them,” Brands said.

Once veterans are involved in the program, Certified Peer Support specialists work with them to develop goals. “We ask them what they need to feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose again. And when they identify it and set that goal, we work with them and we motivate them and we support them as they move toward it,” Brands said. “We have a saying: It’s not they do. It’s we do. And we do it together. They know that they have someone with them who is vested in their success, who understands the unique challenges, and is basically saying, ‘I’m right here with you – just like in combat.’”

The work, both Straw and Brands agree, is incredibly fulfilling. “It’s good to know that you are helping people,” Straw said, “and we have evidence of that every day as we see the people we serve moving forward and achieving independence in their lives.”

Adds Brands: “As a Marine, one of the things we do is take care of our own, and that’s what we’re doing here. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment that we are making a difference in preventing veteran suicide and in hearing someone say, ‘You gave me hope. You met me where I was at. You never judged me, and you helped me overcome personal challenges.’ It’s the best job I ever had.”

For more information about the program, please go to: Individuals who are interested in speaking with a peer specialist or have concerns about a veteran may contact Brands at 272-212-1052. Those who are contemplating suicide are encouraged to call the Carbon County Crisis Line at 570-992-0879. 


About St. Luke’s

Founded in 1872, St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN) is a fully integrated, regional, non-profit network of more than 20,000 employees providing services at 15 campuses and 300+ outpatient sites.  With annual net revenue of $3.4 billion, the Network’s service area includes 11 counties in two states: Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Montgomery, Monroe, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties in Pennsylvania and Warren and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey. St. Luke’s hospitals operate the largest network of trauma centers in Pennsylvania, with the Bethlehem Campus being home to St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital.

Dedicated to advancing medical education, St. Luke’s is the preeminent teaching hospital in central-eastern Pennsylvania.  In partnership with Temple University, the Network established the Lehigh Valley’s first and only four-year medical school campus.  It also operates the nation’s longest continuously operating School of Nursing, established in 1884, and 45 fully accredited graduate medical educational programs with more than 400 residents and fellows. In 2022, St. Luke’s, a member of the Children’s Hospital Association, opened the Lehigh Valley’s first and only free-standing facility dedicated entirely to kids.

SLUHN is the only Lehigh Valley-based health care system to earn Medicare’s five-star ratings (the highest) for quality, efficiency and patient satisfaction.  It is both a Leapfrog Group and Healthgrades Top Hospital and a Newsweek World’s Best Hospital.  The Network’s flagship University Hospital has earned the 100 Top Major Teaching Hospital designation from Fortune/PINC AI 11 times total and eight years in a row, including in 2023 when it was identified as THE #4 TEACHING HOSPITAL IN THE COUNTRY.  In 2021, St. Luke’s was identified as one of the 15 Top Health Systems nationally.  Utilizing the Epic electronic medical record (EMR) system for both inpatient and outpatient services, the Network is a multi-year recipient of the Most Wired award recognizing the breadth of the SLUHN’s information technology applications such as telehealth, online scheduling and online pricing information.  The Network is also recognized as one of the state’s lowest cost providers.

Information provided to TVL by:
Sam Kennedy