When two like-minded organizations get together, a dynamic outcome is usually inevitable.
That happened at the Orlando Magic-Houston Rockets game in April during the 17th annual Seats for Soldiers Night. The Magic and Mission Zero, a Florida-based organization aimed at ending the PTSD and veteran suicide epidemic, hosted a group of veterans and their families at the NBA matchup.
The night honored and highlighted veterans who succumbed to post-combat suicide. Magic players held individual jerseys made for the fallen soldiers.
“My grandfather was a soldier, so I just have a lot of respect for people who serve this country, so it was definitely an awesome moment,” said Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony in a post-game press conference.
Mission Zero founder Jose Belen believes the veteran suicide epidemic has become a pandemic, indicating that a staggering 22 veterans are lost to suicide daily. Veterans Affairs 2018 data — the latest available — reports there are 17.6 veteran suicides per day. Belen noted that government-derived statistics are very conservative, including the 22 per day number. It doesn’t take into account drug overdoses, he said.
The Magic’s social responsibility team and Mission Zero established a relationship in 2019 after co-hosting a veteran outing. Both parties were serious about addressing the mental and emotional well-being of veterans and the pandemic ironically cemented their bond.
“During the beginning of quarantine, Mission Zero started a virtual Happy Hour for Veterans as a result of loneliness during this time period. Our two Magic community ambassadors (who are also former Magic players) Nick Anderson and Bo Outlaw were invited to join one of their Happy Hours to discuss their careers, life experiences and obstacles they have faced,” Orlando Magic spokesperson Trish Wingerson told Military Families Magazine via email.
Belen’s organization raises awareness about veteran suicide and PTSD, develops family support programs, initiates suicide prevention solutions and helps employers broaden their veterans’ outreach.
“So what happened Sunday was a culmination of years of me going through experiences like this trying to find community organizations that would not want to focus on a return on investment to help me grow my organization,” said Belen, an Iraqi War veteran afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, in an interview with Military Families Magazine.
At first, Belen thought partnering with an organization would be an easy sell. Who wouldn’t want to jump on board for an escalating veteran suicide epidemic? But he said most of these community entities wanted signed contracts and product sales targeted to a veteran market. Belen passed.
His initial involvement with the Magic came in 2019 when the nascent Mission Zero coordinated an event for veterans. Belen had refused tickets to sporting events in the past because of concerns those public settings might activate a PTSD trigger. The Mission Zero idea was to give veterans a specific place to enjoy a game while eliminating potential triggers. Admission and food would be paid for, and veterans could bring their families. He called it Mission Zero Veterans Night Out. The inaugural event took place at a Magic game in early 2019 and was highly successful. A second one occurred in November of 2019 and also proved to be a hit. A few weeks after the game, veterans contacted the arena asking about the next Veterans Night Out. Mission Zero and the Magic, plan to join forces for a third one in 2021, Belen wrote via text.
The Magic soon realized Mission Zero was a good fit to help elevate its veteran suicide/PTSD awareness platform, Wingerson said. Belen was grateful for the team’s support, and their collaborative efforts seem to have created something special in the war against veteran suicide and PTSD.
“What the Magic did came from just a place of pure love,” Belen said. “They put their heart first. I always say that I represent the invisible veterans that I carry on my back and my heart.”