Perry Point flag dis­play high­lights vets’ sui­cide pre­ven­tion

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL - By JA­COB OWENS jowens@ce­cil­whig.com

PERRY POINT — Lin­ing the en­trance drive to the Perry Point VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter is 660 small Amer­i­can flags.

No, it’s not an early Vet­er­ans Day project, but a grim re­minder to all about the hu­man cost of sui­cide among our armed forces vet­er­ans.

The dis­play is the work of the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers project, de­signed by a group of vet­er­ans ad­vo­cates to re­mind the public that the na­tion loses hundreds of vet­er­ans each month to sui­cide, and many se­cretly strug­gle with the ef­fects of post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der, of­ten con­nected to their ser­vice. Po­si­tioned next to the flags is in­for­ma­tion about sui­cide pre­ven­tion and a hot­line for those who need help.

“We want to raise aware­ness about sui­cide and pre­ven­tion in the out­side com­mu­nity, be­cause the vet­er­ans com­mu­nity is pretty well aware to­day,” said Tracey Mul­vaney, the state co­or­di­na­tor for the project, on Fri­day. “These dis­plays are pow­er­ful be­cause they’re large and very vis­i­ble.”

The project be­gan with Howard Berry, of Cincin­nati, whose son Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry killed him­self in Fe­bru­ary 2013 af­ter suf­fer­ing from PTSD re­lated to the 2009 Fort Hood shoot­ing in Texas and his ser­vice in Afghanistan.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Josh has be­come one of the face­less many that are part of a staggering statis­tic, a num­ber we’re fa­mil­iar with but can’t un­der­stand. Twenty-two a day, 660 a month, 7,920 a year — what do these num­bers re­ally look like? What can we do to help sup­port our vets? We can start by ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple so more be­come in­volved in the fight to pro­vide bet­ter health ser­vices,” Berry wrote in an­nounc­ing the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers project on Go- FundMe, an on­line fundrais­ing site. “Af­ter spend­ing the last four years writ­ing to all mem­bers of Congress, go­ing to Wash­ing­ton, D. C., twice to meet with law­mak­ers, work­ing with our lo­cal VA, and at­tend­ing each VA town hall meet­ing they’ve held, it’s clear that the only way to make a change is to get more peo­ple in­volved. That’s why this work is so im­por­tant.”

Model­ing his project af­ter the yel­low rib­bon cam­paign, which be­gan as a show of sol­i­dar­ity with the mil­i­tary and has evolved to sym­bol­ize sui­cide aware­ness, Berry set out to sym­bol­ize the loss of our vet­er­ans by sui­cide. Af­ter rais­ing funds, the project has pur­chased sets of 660 small Amer­i­can flags, rep­re­sent­ing the av­er­age num­ber of vet­er­ans who take their lives each month na­tion­wide, that will even­tu­ally be dis­played in all 50 states.

Cur­rently, 17 states have dis­plays that are moved monthly and sev­eral more are in the plan­ning stage. Some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have taken the project a step far­ther by pur­chas­ing their own set of flags in or­der to keep the dis­play up longer.

Mary­land’s first dis­play was put up at the Boule­vard Diner in Dun­dalk, a promi­nent spot in the south­east Bal­ti­more sub­urb, around Memo­rial Day. Af­ter months of plan­ning, it was moved to Perry Point, be­cause Mul­vaney said the VA med­i­cal cen­ter had a great rep­u­ta­tion in the com­mu­nity.

“I could not have been more wel­comed at Perry Point,” she said. “When we showed up, they rolled out the red car­pet for us. It made us feel wanted.”

So far, Mary­land’s dis­play of flags has been well re­ceived by the public, Mul­vaney said. It has also been an op­por­tu­nity for heal­ing for vet­er­ans and families who have been left in the wake of a sui­cide, she added.

Mul­vaney, who is not a vet­eran her­self but has been a life­long ad­vo­cate for them, said she was ini­tially a lit­tle wor­ried that the dis­play may trig­ger feel­ings in those cop­ing with sui­ci­dal thoughts. What she’s seen, how­ever, is the com­plete op­po­site ef­fect.

“I think our vet­er­ans have taken it as, ‘OK, we know there’s a prob­lem. We see you and we’re try­ing re­ally hard,’” she added.

That les­son hit home on Sept. 16 when the vol­un­teer group in­stalling the dis­play at Perry Point saw a vet­eran be­come over­whelmed with the project. Within sec­onds, the oth­ers there with him were hug­ging him and talk­ing to him, Mul­vaney said.

“Ev­ery­one was there around him and com­fort­ing him, it was re­ally quite a sight,” she said.

It’s that kind of sup­port and thought­ful­ness about the men­tal well- be­ing of our vet­er­ans that Mul­vaney said she hopes the public takes away from the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers project.

“We just hope that peo­ple ab­sorb that les­son and when an op­por­tu­nity comes to make a choice that ben­e­fits our vet­er­ans, we hope that peo­ple sup­port those who have given us our free­doms and qual­ity of life,” she said.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF PERRY POINT VAMC

A group of vol­un­teers came out on Sept. 15 to help in­stall the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers dis­play at the Perry Point VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF PERRY POINT VAMC

A group of vol­un­teers came out on Sept. 15 to help in­stall the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers dis­play at the Perry Point VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY JA­COB OWENS

A sign at the be­gin­ning of the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers dis­play at Perry Point in­forms the public of the 660 vet­er­ans lost to sui­cide each month.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF FLAG FOR FOR­GOT­TEN SOL­DIERS

Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers founder Howard Berry poses with Tracey Mul­vaney, the Mary­land state co­or­di­na­tor, dur­ing the dis­play’s first stop at the Boule­vard Diner in Dun­dalk.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF PERRY POINT VAMC

Tracey Mul­vaney, Mary­land state co­or­di­na­tor for the Flags for For­got­ten Sol­diers project, smiles dur­ing the dis­plays in­stal­la­tion at the Perry Point VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter on Sept. 15.

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