RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — With the holidays here and COVID-19 cases on the rise, The American Legion is activating its Buddy Check program to save veteran lives.
It's the largest veteran organization in the nation's effort to connect veterans with their peers for support check-in calls.
The American Legion says military suicides have increased by 20% over this time last year, so they launched thousands of check-in calls to at-risk veterans across the nation.
James "Jim" T. Higuera is a Blue Cap American Legionnaire and Vietnam veteran who lives in Rancho Cucamonga. He spent his early afternoon checking on his buddies.
"Hello David! Jim Higuera, how are ya, Bud!?" he said.
The American Legion launched this program to remind veterans someone still cares. Legionnaires said veterans are at particular risk of depression and suicide around the holidays, and the pandemic disproportionately hits many vets due to age, chronic health issues, and PTSD.
Higuera said the calls let each vet know he's still there to support them.
"How's everything going? How's your health? Have you been to the doctor lately? Are you taking your medication? Are you eating your breakfast?" Higuera said. "Our main purpose is seeing how you are doing as far as this pandemic is concerned, you know COVID-19 and restrictions in California. We just want to do that personal touch."
Despite more than 80,000 American Legion members in California, veterans say they struggle with isolation now more than ever. Higuera attributes their depression to missing the camaraderie they felt while in the military.
"Being around people that you're safe with, that you know they're watching your back. They're taking care of you," Higuera said.
He remembers what started the real-life buddy checks back in the '60s overseas, giving an example from his time in Japan when friends would receive what he calls a "Dear John." It's that letter from a girlfriend saying she's getting married next week and he's not the one.
"That's when a buddy comes in," Higuera said. "Grabs you by the shoulder, gives you a hug, and he says, 'look man, there's thousands of ladies out there, and the way you can dance, the way you can talk, you shouldn't have a problem."
It's a deep bond formed between buddies when sharing those experiences. A friendship and respect that lives on until death does them part.
"We want to be there before something happens," Higuera said. "You know suicide prevention. Twenty-two a day? It's just terrible."
They're statistics that sit in the back of Higuera's mind when he calls a number no longer in service.
"Now that again bothers me," Higuera said after a friend, Gil, had a number that was disconnected. "Because Gil and I have been friends for more than 40 years."
He vows to stop by the 87-year-old's house, saying if he did lose Gil, he'll be there to say goodbye, just like any other soldier would.
"He would be there, and I tell you that kind of brotherhood and friendship, it's so tight. So, so tight," Higuera explained.
A brotherhood understood fully by a true buddy.
"Alright, bud, you take care, and God bless you! Bye, now," Higuera said to his buddy.