Did you hear about the plane crash last week that killed 660 people? Read about the toy that disfigured thousands of children? Something must be done! And it would be, if this were true, but it isn’t. Did you know 660 veterans commit suicide each month? This is true. And something must be done!
SSG Joshua Berry survived two tours of duty in Afghanistan and the shooting massacre at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009. PTSD and suicide cut him down in 2013. He was only 36 years old.
Every day 22 veterans commit suicide. Every month 660 new families deal with their sorrow and search for answers. Howard Berry wants to change those numbers. Howard Berry, SSG Joshua Berry’s father, has spent four years writing letters to all the members of Congress, and his own money to travel to Washington, D.C., to plead his cause.
“If we were losing 660 people per month to plane crashes, we would have done something a long time ago,” says Howard. Howard’s search is for ways to illustrate the epidemic of veteran suicide and how it has been growing steadily for the past eight years.
In Ohio, where he lives, Howard has been placing flags on veterans’ graves for many years. One day, the manager of the cemetery asked if he would be interested in the flags removed during maintenance of the grounds. Howard agreed. To his surprise, he said, “I acquired two carloads – over 3000 flags of assorted sizes and conditions.” He began to sort them out.
The collection of flags inspired Howard and his wife to spearhead the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers movement. The first display was planned for Cincinnati, Ohio in March 2017 on a parcel of land overlooking the city. The property is owned by a World War II veteran, who also believes in the importance of veteran suicide awareness.
Howard and a group of volunteers – most affected by veteran suicide – placed the first 660 flags. “It was very touching,” Howard said. “More and more people are getting involved.”
Since the initial display, Howard and the Flags For Forgotten Soldiers have also set up flags in Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, and Texas. The 660 flags and the banner were on display at the Milbank Cemetery for the Memorial Day program this year, as well as the year before. Along the way, Flags for Forgotten Soldiers has raised $9296, all of which has been spent to purchase flags and banners. Each display costs approximately $720.
Veteran Casey Meyer, a Milbank resident, and his fiancé Stephanie Jones, brought the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers to Milbank. They also set it up both years. It takes the couple four and a half to five hours to finish the job and that is only when the ground is soft. They say it’s worth every minute.
Jones has also been working for three years to pass a law to help prevent veteran suicide. Proponents of the new legislation believe current law lacks a critical piece – an alert for any missing veteran.
This law is known as the Erik Jorgensen Law. Jorgenson was a veteran suffering from PTSD, much like Joshua Berry. He had also served in Afghanistan and was was being treated by the VA for PTSD and depression. When Erik’s mother discovered he was missing and appealed to authorities for help, they imposed the standard waiting period for a missing person. Erik passed away in 2012.
Could Erik have been saved? It is impossible to say, but for many veterans, time is of the essence. If the Erik Jorgensen Law is passed at the federal level, the standard waiting period would be changed to immediate action for a welfare check for at-risk veterans.
Howard and Stephanie urge you, veteran or not, to call for help if you are having thoughts of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention hotline number is 1.800.273.8255. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Pictured: Casey Meyer and Stephanie Jones