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"If I had to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand."

John Morlock understands the isolation that United States military veterans face in a way that those who haven't served just can't — as a retired combat medic with tours in Honduras, Somalia and in the Gulf War, he's been there. Nearly two decades ago, Morlock attempted suicide and survived, instead going on to find a supportive group of fellow veterans who also understood his struggles with PTSD. In 2016, he'd find what he calls his reason for surviving that day.

Morlock founded the Heroes Outreach Program that year, a nonprofit geared toward stemming veteran suicides at the local level by getting out into communities and helping isolated vets to build a network of support. Morlock said he saw the need for such an effort after learning of the sky-high statistics for veteran suicides — he realized he had to do something.

"I knew that when veterans isolate, they get into their own world," Morlock said. "In that world, they have a hard time battling PTSD — we like to call it 'our demons.' The problem is vets without a support system around themthey oftentimes lose that battle. I wanted to create an environment where veterans could help each other in battling those demons."

Morlock recalled his experience with a regional motorcyle club in Washington, Idaho and Montana, Combat Veterans International, while he lived in the area. At their weekly club meetings, the group would have what they'd call "the circle" — they'd pass around a stick and whoever held it had the floor to speak.

Oftentimes, discussion revolved around mundane or run-of-the-mill topics, but Morlock said every once in a while, there'd be a more pressing topic. For instance, perhaps one of the group might have found themself homeless — the others would follow up and offer a spare room after the meeting, making sure their peer had a place to stay while finding a new living space.

"I mean, here we are, we're all combat vets," Morlock said. "You know, the toughest America has to offer. And in that circle, in that situation, we were crying."

It was therapeutic, Morlock said. The outlet at these meetings helped the group to not lose any of its members to the demons they all fought together. Morlock said he wanted to provide a similar environment for veterans himself. That environment emerged in the form of Veteran's Coffee Talk, an event series through the Heroes Outreach Program.

Starting on Veteran's Day, veterans will have a new avenue for organized weekly gatherings with their peers via the program here in Moniteau County — it's set to come to the county after having been taking place in Jefferson City with an average of 12-14 participants at each week's gathering for a while. There's also a weekly gathering in Eldon, and one set to start in the next three weeks in Camdenton. The gatherings include free coffee and doughnuts offered to all branches of military veterans.

The first official meeting in Moniteau County will take place from 9-10:30 a.m. Nov. 18 at The Gathering Place in California, and the program will also host a Veteran's Day gathering from 8:30-10 a.m. Nov. 11 at the California Nutrition Center.

The goal, Morlock said, is for these gatherings to be like AA meetings — he wants the program to have a presence in every town across the country, or at least within 20 miles of every veteran any given day.

Morlock said he's cognizant of the amount of resources something like that will take — already, the nonprofit relies on donations and volunteers to help make its gatherings happen.

"We could expand tomorrow across the entire United States and have all of this set up if we had two things: money and volunteers to do it," Morlock said.

The California location has been aided by individuals like The Gathering Place's owner, Chelsea McGill, who offered the space for the program, and Heroes Outreach Program secretary Pam Gilligan, who led the charge in bringing Veteran's Coffee Talk to the city.

As for others who want to assist the Heroes Outreach Program, by donating or volunteering their time, Morlock said there are a number of ways to help. In California, Morlock said a volunteer to help run gatherings would be especially helpful — someone to help with making sure the food's there, the space is ready and things are cleaned up when all's said and done, he said.

A big part of garnering enough support, Morlock said, is proving that the pursuits of the Heroes Outreach Program are more than just surface level.

"The program seems really simple on the surface, and it's meant to," Morlock said. "There's actually a lot of structure that goes on behind (the scenes)."

The program is medically advised by a recognized PTSD expert, Dr. Bridget Cantrell, a friend of Morlock's old motorcycle club who he connected with back in Washington state. Morlock said Cantrell is his first phone call when there's ever a medically-related question he needs to help a fellow veteran with.

Structurally, the Heroes Outreach Program already has a leadership flowchart prepared for a potential national expansion.

"When we do expand, we have the infrastructure already in place," Morlock said.

The seeds of that expansion are already starting to sprout a bit — Morlock last lived in Wyoming, where he's had some discussion with his connections there about towns in that state hosting their own gatherings. A gentleman in Portland, Maine, has reached out to volunteer to get things started in his neck of the woods, as well.

Still, Morlock said he wants to take a measured approach to protect the integrity of his goals — he said he only wants to bring on people whose values and goals mirror what he wants from the program.

"I want to be a little bit careful about expanding too fast and not vetting everybody who's going to start the program (locally)," Morlock said. "All it takes is one mistake."

Morlock said interested individuals can contact him anytime via email at [email protected] or via phone at 800-514-6670 to learn more about the program, and there are donation links accessible at the program's website at www.heroesoutreachprogram.org or the program's Facebook page.

If you or a veteran you know are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call the National Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

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