Veterans are at a 57 percent higher risk of suicide than Americans who haven’t served in the armed forces, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In each of the past 20 years, there have been more than 6,000 veteran suicides.
Veterans in Long Beach, and their families, want to help do something about the problem, which many in the military have described as a crisis. The city’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1384 and its auxiliary will host the first Veterans Suicide Awareness and Prevention Walk on Sept. 23. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon on the boardwalk at Grand Boulevard.
Post 1384 was established in 1924, and is dedicated to the rehabilitation of needy and disabled veterans, assisting widows and orphans, and promoting patriotism through education and community service. Its auxiliary, made up of those who have relatives who have served in combat zones, has roughly 145 members. Throughout the year, the post and the auxiliary work together on a variety of events.
“Veteran suicide is a quiet crisis among our veterans and active military men and women,” Jackie Ervolina, auxiliary president, said. “Research shows that veteran suicide is well over the national average, and may be underreported. If you ask anyone, they will tell you that they’re extremely grateful for the sacrifices made by our military heroes on our behalf.”
The post and the auxiliary have been discussing a veteran suicide-awareness event for some time, and as the post nears its 100th anniversary, the moment seems especially fitting.
“Most don’t realize that the aftermath of military service can have devastating mental and physical effects on our veterans’ health that can last a lifetime,” Ervolina said. “This walk is our way of shining a light on this tragic reality. If they truly appreciate their military service, we’re hoping that our friends and neighbors will do what they can and come out and support this worthwhile cause.”
The goal of the walk is to educate the community on the crisis impacting military personnel. Factors that contribute to the alarming number of veterans who take their own lives include their socio-economic challenges, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, service-related disabilities, and difficulty finding jobs, and experts say that the public needs to understand the wide range of issues.
Eric Tobkes, an Army veteran and a member of Post 1384, served three tours of duty in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he believes it is critical for community members to take part in events like the walk.
“Participation raises awareness about veteran suicide and removes the stigma for those who are suffering,” Tobkes said. “They need to see that they’re not being judged or seen as weak if they seek help.”
Another aim of the event is to raise funds for projects addressing the issue. Auxiliary member Kevin Hertell, an Air Force veteran, created the Suicide Awareness and Remembrance flag that has been adopted by veterans’ organizations around the country, and founded the SAR Flag Family.
“In 2016, my cousin, Senior Airman Robert Dean, U.S. Air Force, died by suicide,” Hertell said. “It was at that time that I became painfully aware of the 22 veterans or military members who die by suicide each day. Suicide is preventable — it’s up to us to do something about it. The SAR’s mission is to help break the stigma of veteran suicide.”
The auxiliary is also preparing an exhibit at the Long Beach Historical Society, where military memorabilia will be on display. It will be accompanied by an evening of discussion with veterans, including those who served in Vietnam and more recently in the Middle East, who will share their experiences.
Community members are encouraged to join the walk on Sept. 23. A donation of $25 is suggested, with all funds going to the VFW’s suicide-prevention efforts.
“As the wife of a Navy veteran, I see firsthand how the images, sounds and memories of wartime experiences become a part of you,” Ervolina said. “No matter how hard you try, they don’t go away. Maybe someday there will be peace on earth, and no veterans.”
But, she added, “Right here, right now, there are plenty of veterans, and it’s up to all of us to help them. No veteran should go without the help they need to live a mentally and physically healthy life. As our poster says, they marched for us, now we walk for them.”