‘We’re carrying a large burden’

March brings awareness to veteran suicide

By Kevin Spradlin

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HAMLET — Some aren’t ready to talk about it. They’re going through it right now; a family member — combat veteran — is struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The family is in disarray. The matriarch doesn’t know how it’s going to end.

Another woman, a 26-year Army veteran still on active duty, feels as if she doesn’t fit in. She’s never been deployed, never seen shot fired in anger. Working in human resources, the soldier has processed the promotions and awards of others who have lost best friends in war in far-off places.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Camaraderie and esprit de corps were key elements of the 22 Until None march on Saturday through Richmond County.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Camaraderie and esprit de corps were key elements of the 22 Until None march on Saturday through Richmond County.

Neither person was alone on Saturday during a 22 Until None march. Nearly 100 current and former military service members and family members hiked the 4.7 miles from Cole Auditorium in Hamlet to VFW Post 4203 and back. Many hauled rucksacks with 22 pounds of gear inside, a symbolic gesture representing the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day — more than 8,000 each year.

Hoffman resident and event organizer Brandon Parrish, a recently appointed volunteer board member of 22 Until None. The Texas-based nonprofit with an overhead of roughly $40 per year and no paid staff aims to stamp out suicide among veterans. The first step in doing so is, well, a series of steps.

In this case, Parrish said he wanted to bring awareness to the issue. Mission accomplished. Dozens of camouflage-clad individuals carrying large flags representing the United States, military service branches and prisoners of war and those missing in action caused traffic to stop — with the assistance of Richmond County sheriff’s deputies and officers with the Hamlet and Rockingham police departments. Additional logistical support was provided by the Cordova Fire and Rescue Department.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Marine Sgt. Michal Martinez left his Rockingham recruiting station office to greet the military veterans marching to raise awareness of suicides among military veterans. It's an epidemic, they said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Marine Sgt. Michal Martinez left his Rockingham recruiting station office to greet the military veterans marching to raise awareness of suicides among military veterans. It’s an epidemic, they said.

People couldn’t help but take notice — but a slow-moving convoy is much easier to spot along a  commercial highway than the signs of PTSD within the sometimes unfriendly confines of a post-combat soldier’s home.

“I think part of the problem is that a lot of the signs go unnoticed,” said National Guard Staff Sgt. John Montgomery, a Laurinburg resident serving as a medic in C Company with the 230th Brigade Support Battalion. “I don’t think family members truly know what soldiers go through during wartime. Especially when they come back …”

Montgomery said he was lucky. His mother works as a civilian Department of Defense employee at Fort Bragg and his father retired from the 82nd Airborne Division. Montgomery said when he returned from a deployment to southeast Baghdad in January 2010, he had help. His parents already knew what soldiers face in a combat theater of operations.

“It wasn’t an overnight process,” Montgomery said. “It took a while.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Montgomery considered the epidemic — many feel the 22 military veteran suicides each day is a figure that vastly under-represents the problem. What’s the solution?

“I’m not sure,” Montgomery said. “It needs to start at the administration.”

He expressed concern, though, that even civilian and military leaders don’t know how to address the problem.

Amber Dolan served more than 15 years in the Army with the military police. Dolan is a disabled veteran. She was in Richmond County on Saturday representing Alpha K9. The California-based nonprofit, operated by a combat-wounded military veteran, aims to join veterans in need with a service dog or working dog to help them live their lives.

The name 22 Until None, Dolan is asked, suggests the elimination of suicide among veterans. Is that achievable?

“I’m not sure,” Dolan said. “PTSD is a complicated … I don’t want to say disease, I don’t want to say illness … it’s complicated.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Highlighted on the Alpha K9 website is a U.S. Veterans Administration statistics: There are 834,463 veterans from Operating Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom suffer from combat-related PTSD. That’s 30 percent. Overall, there are 10.6 million veterans living with combat-related PTSD.

Dolan said service dogs are not the answer. They are an answer.

“There’s no one way to address it,” Dolan said. “Everybody’s different. We provide PTSD service dogs. It works for some people but it doesn’t work for everyone.”

Dolan said a key to the solution is that “we all work together and recognize there’s a problem.”

Derek Cirilo, for one, recognized a problem shortly after serving in the Marine Corps as an infantryman. He was honorably discharged in 2012, but by November 2014 Cirilo realized that “I lost more of my friends to suicide than I did in combat in both wars that I served in.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Said Cirilo: “I stood up … something’s gotta be done to help these guys. I figured I might as well go ahead and spearhead this … and make the problem go away myself.”

Cirilo said the Department of Veterans Affairs let’s too many veterans down.

Upon discharge, “they get out and they feel alienated whenever they go to school. The VA is not helping them.”

Add in the pressures of financial struggles that begets family problems and the recipe for a perfect catastrophe is there.

“We wanted to start something that can address the majority of those problems,” Cirilo said.

22 Until None has a 24-hour crisis hotline and, though a five-month-old startup nonprofit, there are limited funds available to help a veteran facing financial difficulties. To the veterans and military supporters gathered in the Cole Auditorium parking lot before the start, Cirilo acknowledged:

“We’re carrying a large burden.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Spec. Eric Hauser, 21, has three years of service with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1/504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. He said programs such as the ones offered by 22 Until None can be a key part of the solution: Confront the problem, which can sometimes be as simple as saying hello and starting a conversation.

“I wanted to support the cause,” Hauser said of explaining why he drove from Fort Bragg with other soldiers in his unit. “I’m all for getting help to the people who need it.”

Twenty-two veteran suicides each day, Hauser said, “is not acceptable anywhere.”

Say hello, Hauser said.

“Striking up a conversation is the best thing you can do,” he said. “Engage.”

Hildie Dietrich knows the signs. Now. The Holly Springs resident is married to a disabled veteran who suffers from PTSD. Dietrich supported 22 Until None on Saturday but did so as a member of the U.S. Military Veterans Foundation, a Raleigh-based nonprofit.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

“We don’t want to lose another to suicide,” Dietrich said.

Along with being a mother of five, Dietrich volunteers as a veterans advocate.

“I deal with a lot of veterans in crisis,” Dietrich said. “Spouses call me at 3 o’clock in the morning” to discuss issues that can’t wait.

Dietrich said above all else, “isolation is a major, major, major sign” of a problem.”

She also warned of triggers — odors or noises that could clear up the memories left behind in the fog of war. A smell, for example, of breaking out a rucksack for a 22 Until None march that hasn’t been used in a long time. Or random gunshots. Or 4th of July fireworks.

“We do things like this and make a noise,” Dietrich said of getting the attention of higher-ups. “Make your voice heard.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Shawn Garrett, of Fuquay-Varina, volunteers with U.S. Military Veterans Foundation and Military Missions in Action, the latter a North Carolina-based nonprofit aimed at helping disabled veterans achieve independent living. Garrett said a couple of her friends, military veterans, have taken their own lives.

“Everybody thinks that this is a military problem, a VA problem,” Garrett said. “No, this is an American problem.”



Filed in: Featured News, Hamlet, Hoffman, Latest Headlines, Military and Veterans, News, Outdoors, Rockingham

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