New Milford resident and retired Teaneck firefighter, Technical Sgt. James P. Connors of the United States Air Force Reserve is a remarkable man. I should know: I’m lucky enough to call him my friend and neighbor.
A humanitarian and an empathetic shepherd caring for his fellow war veterans and first responders, Connors retired from The Teaneck Fire Department and completed seven tours all over the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Afterwards, Connors found himself getting involved in Save A Warrior and combating veteran suicide or “Warrior Suicide,” as members of Save A Warrior call it. New York City Policeman John Vitale introduced Connors to Save A Warrior. After dealing with bouts of sadness and survivors’ guilt himself, Connors knew he wanted to get involved. An alarming rate of 20 veterans a day are lost due to post traumatic stress, according to new data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There is nothing sadder than to hear when a man or woman returns home from war and then – during peacetime – takes his or her own life,” said Connors. “Those are our brothers and sisters and our mothers and fathers.”
So, what is Save A Warrior? What is this program that keeps this man traveling to California every month and to Lexington, Ky. in the summers for the past 3-and-a-half years on his own dime?
Save A Warrior, a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization, is a one-week long in residence war detox, or what is coming to be known in certain circles as a model reverse boot camp. It’s a resiliency program specifically designed for supporting our warriors to heal from the devastating effects of war. Save A Warrior is open to veterans, active duty military, reservists, National Guardsman and first responders who, on a regular basis, have to deal with trauma.
“Save A Warrior is the last house on the block,” said Connors. “Most who come to this program have already taken suicide attempts to end their lives and make the pain go away.”
Connors has spent 3-and-a-half years worth of volunteering almost 1,700 hours, which translates to helping 444 warriors take their lives back. He has had an effect on 200 families.
“It makes me more humble every time I’m given the honor to come back and work with Save A Warrior,” said Connors.
With Connors’ help, Save A Warrior participants practice meditation twice a day for 20 minutes, work with horses and partake in equine-supported learning, a ropes course and team building exercises that give participants the tools to take back their lives, put the trauma in the past – where it belongs.
What is unfortunate is the numbers that Connors throws at me all the time. As stated earlier, the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs study finds that 20 veterans a day take their own lives. Going by these numbers, that’s a veteran nearly every hour of every day – nearly 7,500 veterans a year. A staggering 500,000 veterans have sought treatment for post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress has killed more of our warriors than the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
“It’s a holocaust in slow motion,” said Connors two years ago at the WebMD Awards alongside Jake Clark, the founder of Save A Warrior and his mentor.
Connors is truly paying it forward. He continues to put the needs of others and the relief of so many veterans and first responders before his own while giving them love and spiritual initiation.
Connors also keeps records of Save A Warrior events and cohorts. On May 19, 2015, Connors was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the State of New Jersey’s highest military honor by then-Gov. Chris Christie.
Connors has often said, “If I could tell someone who is suffering and in pain or isolating themselves from the world, I would say, ‘Hang on. We are here, and it helps me to help you. There is no need to travel alone for if you just look around, you will see we are all on the same train.’”
In addition to Save A Warrior, Connors devotes his time to the Rochelle Park American Legion Post 170; the Alpine Tilden Tenakill Lodge No. 77 of Free and Accepted Masons; the Mosaic Lodge of Ridgefield Park; and the D.A.V. Northern Valley Chapter in Bergenfield. He is also an AMVET and VFW member.
By Stephen Swirczynski