PORT TOWNSEND — On a small grass strip adjacent to the American Legion Post on Water Street is a display that reminds passersby of a statistic that is painfully real: Each day in the United States, an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide.
They are represented by 22 white crosses and 22 flags.
Local veterans Bob Saring and Andy Okinczyc are behind this visual reminder.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and for the past few years, Saring and Okinczyc have created powerful reminders of the veterans who take their own lives.
“This is something I saw online a few years ago. Another Legion post did it,” Saring said. “We wanted to do it. We got the wood, built the crosses, painted them, and we put them in the ground at the beginning of the month.”
He said community reaction to the installation has been heartfelt.
“It’s amazing how many people stop and read it,” Saring said. “We want to raise awareness. People don’t realize this statistic and the impact of military service to our country has on so many.
“When you look and see 22 crosses and 22 flags, it hits you. We’ve had people come in and cry, and thank us. A Marine came in and wanted to join our post to help out vets.”
Saring said the field of wooden crosses is meant to evoke the image of a World War I battlefield cemetery. Think of the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrae.
“These are our comrades who have passed. We want people to remember these are vets that have died, in part, because of the service they have given to our country,” Saring said.
Ryan Britch, Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Brain Injury programs coordinator at the American Legion National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said that since the invasion of Iraq, there has been a sharp increase in veteran suicides, surpassing national civilian suicide rates.
“The target demographic is veterans 55 and older, but those 18 to 24 are 10 times the national suicide rate,” he said.
“White Paper on Veteran Suicide,” prepared by the Veteran’s Administration Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, reported the average number of veterans dying by suicide per day has remained relatively unchanged since 2005 and is comparable across the veteran population by military branch.
Vietnam era veterans represent the largest population of veterans by year and the second-largest number of deaths by suicides.
Joseph Plenzler of the American Legion National Headquarters said suicides can be tracked to four causes: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sense of belonging (reintegration into civilian life) and sense of purpose (discovering a post-service identity).
Secondary risk factors include substance abuse, financial distress, intimate relationship problems and legal issues.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has expanded its crisis line that takes up to a half-million calls every year, as well as electronic chats and text messages.
A June, analysis by the VA showed that veteran suicide has increased at a faster rate for those who have not recently used VA care and services available to them than for those who have used those services.
There are 350 members of the Marvin G. Shields American Legion Post #26 on the corner of Monroe and Water Streets which serves all of east Jefferson County. Membership is open to all service members who have served during a time of conflict.
The post was named for the local hero who was born in 1939 and grew up in Port Townsend, graduating in 1958. Petty Officer, Third Class Shields was mortally wounded in Dong Xoai, Vietnam, in 1965, and is the first and only Navy Seebee to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He also was awarded the Purple Heart, among other honors.
Saring reminded everyone that the American Legion’s “22” display lasts just 30 days, but suicides happen all year round.
“We urge anyone if they are troubled or are having a hard time to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, ext 1.”
The National Veterans Crisis Line is available at any time by calling 800-273-TALK (8255), texting 838255 or online chatting at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net. The free, confidential service is for veterans, service members, their families and friends.
Discovery Behavioral Healthcare in Port Townsend provides free crisis services to all residents of East Jefferson County. Crisis services are available on a walk-in basis at 884 W. Park Ave., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. The 24-hour crisis line is 360-385-0321 or 1-877-410-4803.
In Port Angeles and Sequim, the crisis line for Peninsula Behavioral Health is 360-452-4500 or 800-843-4793. Offices are located at 118 E. Eighth St., in Port Angeles and at 490 N. Fifth Ave., in Sequim.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]ilynews.com.