U.S. flags planted on National Mall to represent veteran suicides

Ann+Weeby%2C+an+Iraq+veteran+with+the+Michigan+Army+National+Guard+and+senior+business+developer+for+Goodwill+in+San+Francisco%2C+plants+a+U.S.+flags+across+the+National+Mall+to+represent+veterans+who+committed+suicide+over+the+last+year.

Alejandro Alba/SHFWire intern

Ann Weeby, an Iraq veteran with the Michigan Army National Guard and senior business developer for Goodwill in San Francisco, plants a U.S. flags across the National Mall to represent veterans who committed suicide over the last year.

Alejandro Alba, SHFWire reporter

WASHINGTON – As he helped plant some of the 1,892 U.S. flags across the National Mall, David Curry remembered his fellow Marine and friend, Jonathan Schulze.

Seven years ago, Schulze committed suicide after returning from war. He was unable to get the help he needed, and now his friend and fellow veterans are calling on Congress to take action.

“He had a really tragic story as a result of, what I feel, were failures by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs in providing this particular Marine and veteran the access to the cure that he needed when he was crying out for help,” said Curry, who lives near San Diego, attends the University of Southern California and is an intern at the VA.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America planted one U.S. flag Thursday to represent each veteran and service member who committed suicide in the past year, as part of the Storm the Hill campaign.

“We are donating our time away from our families and jobs to come out here and advocate for a cause that is very personal to us,” Jeremy Newton, an Iraq war Navy veteran and member of IAVA, of Houston, said. “We are here to combat suicide. This is our visual representation of the problem.”

The organization brought 31 veteran leaders from 16 states to D.C. to discuss their stories with members of Congress to persuade them and the president to improve mental health care for service members and veterans to reduce suicides.

The VA released a suicide data report in 2012 that estimated 22 veterans committed suicide every day.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will talk to members of Congress as part of their Storm the Hill campaign. Their goal is to have Congress pass a comprehensive legislative package to help veterans receive better mental health assistance and combat suicide. SHFWire photo by Alejandro AlbaClick on photo to enlarge or download: The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will talk to members of Congress as part of their Storm the Hill campaign. Their goal is to have Congress pass a comprehensive legislative package to help veterans receive better mental health assistance and combat suicide. SHFWire photo by Alejandro Alba“When you provide the stories of individuals who aren’t here to speak for themselves because they weren’t able to get the access to the support they needed,” Curry said, “it’s powerful in that you are able to advocate for change, but at the same time, in my friend Jonathan Schulze’s case, it is seven years too late.”

Curry and Schulze deployed to Iraq together in 2003. Schulze was living in Stewart, Minn., with his wife and daughter at the time of his death.

The Department of Defense and the VA have set up programs to help veterans, including crisis hotlines.

Based on the VA report, the veterans’ group wants Congress to pass a comprehensive legislative package to combat suicide.

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., is the sponsor of a bill called the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act that he intends to introduce Friday.

Walsh, the second Iraq veteran elected to Congress, was a battalion commander in the Montana National Guard when he led more than 700 troops in 2004.

“One of my young sergeants died by suicide,” Walsh said. “So this is very personal to me.”

Walsh said the statistics of suicide among veterans can be considered an epidemic.

Click on photo to enlarge or download: The IAVA planted 1,892 U.S. flags Thursday at the National Mall representing all the veterans who committed suicide last year. The flag planting was part of the Storm the Hill campaign sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. SHFWire photo by Alejandro AlbaClick on photo to enlarge or download: The IAVA planted 1,892 U.S. flags Thursday at the National Mall representing all the veterans who committed suicide last year. The flag planting was part of the Storm the Hill campaign sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. SHFWire photo by Alejandro Alba“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Walsh said. “I will be calling on my colleagues to make sure that we pass this act very quickly.”

The SAVE Act would extend the special combat eligibility for veterans with disabilities from five to 15 years, review wrongful discharges – some likely based on behavior caused by post-traumatic stress syndrome, create more programs that provide mental health assistance, reach out to support veterans at risk and involve the American community through education and promotion.

“Honestly, we have seen a lot of support,” Kate O’Gorman, political director for IAVA, said. “We are hoping that as soon as this bill is introduced we can get it passed quickly.”

Alejandro Alba is a senior multimedia journalism major at UTEP. He is currently particpating in the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Semester in Washington program. He may be reached at [email protected]