Florida veterans who go missing could benefit from a statewide Camo Alert system so they can be found sooner before they can harm themselves.
State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, filed legislation recently to create a statewide alert for finding at-risk veterans.
The program would operate similarly to Silver Alert for missing seniors and others suffering from reduced mental capacities. For missing children, the state runs the Amber Alert program.
Fitzenhagen’s House Bill 1051 would create a voluntary registry for at-risk veterans or active duty members of the military whose disappearance could pose a risk to their own health and safety or that of another person, according to the bill.
The veterans or active duty military who could be listed must be known to suffer from a mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury or other condition.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would run the program, according to the draft bill.
Florida is home to more than 1.5 million veterans, according to the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs.
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Several states have passed Camo Alert systems, including Delaware, Wisconsin and Texas.
Wisconsin was the first state to pass its alert system in March 2018 and Delaware followed in August 2018, according to Stars and Stripes. The Camo Alert law was passed in Texas in May 2019. Lawmakers in Connecticut have been considering a similar measure.
Keith Campbell, founder of PTSD Awareness Summit in Cape Coral to heighten awareness of the epidemic of suicide among at risk veterans, said one of the goals is to allow law enforcement to reach out to veterans’ organizations to help in a search of a veteran who has gone missing.
Campbell said he has been active with getting Camo Alert legislation passed for two years. He is not a veteran but said his father operated VFW and American Legion clubs in Rhode Island.
“You must handle veterans differently, because of their PTSD, their thoughts are different,” Campbell said.
By allowing law enforcement to have veterans help in a search, it can help diffuse a situation from getting out of hand when only police or deputies are involved, he said.
Campbell said there have been 14 suicides among at-risk veterans in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties since last summer that he has learned about from networking with veterans’ groups.
According to the Disabled National Veterans Foundation, an estimated 1 in 5 veterans suffer from PTSD or depression, and more than 250,000 veterans experience traumatic brain injury.
In 2017, more than 6,100 veterans died by suicide; an average 17 veterans each day die by suicide, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Fitzenhagen, an attorney who is facing term limits in the Florida House and who announced in December her candidacy for Congress, could not be reached for comment about the bill.
She is among several candidates vying for the 19th Congressional District seat for Southwest Florida being vacated by Francis Rooney, who announced in October that he would not be seeking a third term in 2020.
Officials at FDLE could not be reached for comment about the proposed legislation.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Sheriff Carmine Marceno “is committed to doing everything possible to ensure a quick and safe return home” of any missing person.
The Lee sheriff’s office pointed out that Marceno operates its ReUnite program in partnership with the United Way using drones, GPS and other technology to locate missing persons.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.
A Camo Alert bill was filed in 2019 by David Smith, R-Winter Park, with Fitzenhagen as a co-sponsor for consideration during last year’s legislative session.
Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, filed companion legislation in the Senate but the measure died in committee.
Several veterans’ organizations last year expressed concerns about veterans’ privacy, Campbell said.
“We listened to their concerns and went back to the table to create a voluntary registry,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he doesn’t see the voluntary registry approach as a roadblock for getting at-risk veterans to sign on.
“It depends on the seriousness of their PTSD,” he said, adding that veterans can also have their names removed from the registry.
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