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WASHINGTON ― When celebrity chef Robert Irvine is out on a USO tour, it’s normally about food, photo-ops and escapism, meant as relief for service members deployed overseas.

Recently during one of those visits, a soldier approached him. Except he didn’t want to talk about fun. He wanted to confide. The soldier was thinking about killing himself.

It was a first for Irvine, and it hit a nerve. In an interview Wednesday he didn’t disclose the base or specific timeframe, other than to say “this year,” because after that interaction, Irvine “went to help him by getting his superiors,” and the soldier is still getting help.

Now Irvine’s getting more involved in military mental health issues, and is partnering with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency has numerous ways, both confidential and official, for service members who are struggling with anger or depression or other post-traumatic symptoms, such as excessive drinking or other risky behavior, to get help. It also maintains a suicide hotline.

“When a person comes back from deployment, they are a different person from when they left,” Irvine said.

The agency reports that 18.5 percent of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and 19.5 percent report experiencing a traumatic brain injury during deployment. Worse, the agency estimates that veterans comprise 20 percent of suicides nationally and reports that three out of five veterans who died by suicide were diagnosed as having a mental health condition.

It’s an issue that requires long-term attention, Irvine said.

On Wednesday, Irvine hosted the agency’s Voice Awards, which honor filmmakers or writers who have raised awareness of the mental health challenges active duty and veteran military members face. Irvine wanted to add more celebrity reach to the organization to get the mental health problems that often come home with troops ― and can stay with them through their lives as they become veterans ― into the mainstream.

“The more we make this visible and make it okay for active duty and veterans to talk about,” Irvine said, “it becomes a lot easier for people to deal with.”

Irvine served in the British Royal Navy for 10 years before he became a fitness and culinary celebrity. He has appeared on several Food Network shows and has opened a chain of healthy-eating restaurants, “Fresh Kitchen.” He is now looking for a network to help host the annual awards to keep the issue in the spotlight.

“That will be an ongoing thing for me after today,” Irvine said.

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