DENVER (KDVR) — Diana Meredith remembers May 23, 2021, like it was yesterday.

She and her husband Garrett took their two dogs, Tucker and Carson, to their favorite Colorado Springs park. They watched their favorite TV shows and had dinner together. Then, like usual, Garrett gave her a kiss goodnight and went off to play video games.

She had no idea it would be the last time she would see him alive. 

“I woke up the next morning running late for work myself, and all of a sudden I saw his car was still in the driveway,” Diana said. “And then I saw his phone, and so I immediately started to search around, and then on the dining room table is where I saw scattered bullets. And It was almost instantly that my mind clicked to the worst possible scenario.”

Diana found Garrett in their garage, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

“It just absolutely broke me,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom he was gone. It was almost like my mind didn’t want to believe it.”

How Coloradans are helping veterans’ mental health

It’s a story that’s not uncommon for the families of veterans in Colorado.

In 2020, 154 Colorado veterans died by suicide, according to a new report released by Veterans Affairs this fall. That number translated to a suicide rate of 39.3, significantly higher than the national average of 31.7.

“We rank up there, usually between No. 3, and No. 7 in the nation,” Damian McCabe said.

McCabe is the director of behavioral health for UCHealth Military Affairs, now tasked with leading a pilot program called “Next Chapter.” The program provides free behavioral health resources for veterans in El Paso County and is being funded through new legislation passed by the state.

“Veterans don’t have a lot of support in the communities that they live in because often they’re not from those communities,” he said. “They’ve made those communities their new home, but they’re not fully integrated into them yet.”

So far, McCabe said 115 veterans have enrolled in the program.

“I would say we have saved lives to date, and we plan to save a lot more,” he said. 

‘Let yourself feel’

Damian Nicholson served with Spc. Garrett Meredith and said the program is a step in the right direction. He too has experienced suicidal thoughts and said veterans are often reluctant to talk about the issue.

“The military itself, we kind of demonize the whole, ‘there’s something wrong with me,'” Nicholson said. “You’re not going to be any less of a man if you let yourself feel. So let’s go around the room and talk about this.”

Diana Meredith also believes conversation is the first step toward bringing the numbers down. She said Garrett wore a bracelet honoring the 22 veterans who die by suicide nationally every day. Now, she wears that bracelet.

“The greatest honor I want to do by him is to let people know they can ask for help, they can have those resources, and we as a society need to change that all together,” she said.