Using flags in Washington, D.C., to focus on veterans' suicides
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Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Flags on the National Mall represented the hundreds of veterans who have committed suicide this year.

By JADA F. SMITH
c.2014 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Volunteers in dark green hooded sweatshirts spread out across the National Mall, planting 1,892 small American flags in the grass between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Each flag represented a veteran who had committed suicide since Jan. 1, a figure that amounts to 22 deaths each day.

Civilians stood among the waving flags in solidarity with veterans like Michael Blazer, a former sergeant in the Army who had a friend commit suicide when he got back from Afghanistan.

“He shot himself in the same room as me and a friend of mine,” Blazer said.

“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD because of that, so a lot of these issues are what I’ve personally been dealing with. But above and beyond, I’m out here in memory of him.”

The event last Thursday was part of an awareness campaign mounted by members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group focused on issues affecting the nation’s newest veterans.

They were in Washington, D.C., last week as part of their leadership development program, Storm the Hill, and to support the introduction of legislation aimed at preventing suicides and providing more mental health resources for service members home from combat.

Event organizers said that the issues were a top priority for veterans and their families, and that they wanted to make them a priority for Congress, too.

Sen. John Walsh, D-Montana and the first Iraq war veteran to serve in the Senate, introduced the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act on Thursday.

For Walsh, the issue is personal.

A sergeant who served under him when he commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 committed suicide after returning home.

“We’ve waited too long to take on this action,” he said. Then, mentioning the 22 veterans who take their lives every day, he added, “That’s an epidemic that we cannot allow to continue.”

When service members leave the military, they can get five years of no-questions-asked care from Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and facilities. One of the bill’s main goals is to extend that window to 15 years.

“For instance, in Vietnam, a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t show up anywhere until between seven and 12 years later,” said Kate O’Gorman, the political director at the veterans’ advocacy group. “We really want to make sure that care is available when someone is ready to seek it.”

The bill also calls for the military to set up a review process for troops who are discharged for behavior that could have been caused by mental health issues. Measures to help the Veterans Affairs agency recruit more psychiatrists are also included.

“It establishes student loan repayment for psychiatrists,” O’Gorman said. “When the private sector and even the Department of Defense are able to offer good student loan repayment programs and the V.A. is not, that can make it difficult for them to recruit.”

The striking display of red, white and blue caught the eye of almost everyone leaving a Metro station on the Mall on Thursday.

One man wearing a hat with “Vietnam Veteran” stitched on the front took pictures. Others stopped to ask what was going on.

Roger Engetschwiler and his daughter, Katja, were visiting from Switzerland. They were headed to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and then the Lincoln Memorial when they paused to find out about the flags.

“We knew the subject when they told us that there’s a lot of suicide going on with veterans,” he said. “But I didn’t know the numbers were that high. That’s really scary.”

Last modified: March 29. 2014 8:29PM
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