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Operation: 23 to Zero brings attention, help to veterans' mental health

Lead Summary

To the Editor:
Early on the morning of April 4th, members of an organization called Operation: 23 to Zero travelled to the lower mall of the Minnesota State Capitol for an annual event. That Monday morning they arranged 23 pair of military boots in a long arc, with all pointing the same direction. Each day during the week they would add another 23 pairs to the formation. By the end of the week there would be a total of 115 pairs of boots in five lines. Operation: 23 to Zero is based out of Cottage Grove, Minnesota, and works to support veterans in need by relieving relatively simple stressors for those that might not see a solution in sight. They provide networks for veterans and show them that the brotherhood of service does not end with discharge papers.
The number 23, in veteran circles, has become a symbol of the suicide rate of veterans and active duty personnel over the course of many years. Every day an average of 22 veterans and one active duty service member kill themselves. What is amazing is the lack of attention that these numbers receive. In 2012 the number of active duty suicides was actually higher than the number of service members killed in action at a time of war.
Another recent tragedy that has received almost no press took place in Northfield, New Jersey at a Veteran’s Affairs out-patient clinic. Navy veteran Charles Richard Ingram III walked nine miles from his home to the clinic on Saturday, March 19, of this year. Ingram served in the Navy from 85-92 and left the service as a Chief Petty Officer. He was married with two children, ages 3 and 5. When he arrived at the clinic that day he moved across the street to a grassy area, doused himself in gasoline, and lit himself on fire. He died shortly thereafter.
The question remains, “What is happening with our military people?” We were taught from day one that we are on this earth to defend those that can’t defend themselves. We were told to lean only on our brothers and sisters in arms and never show weakness. Unfortunately, many veterans never leave that attitude behind and try to deal with their problems on their own, suffering in silence even their spouses and children cannot break through.
Let’s face it; the issue of suicide is not one that we talk about very often. And when we come to veterans and active duty service members, it is very easy to put the responsibility on the Veteran’s Administration and the branches of service. Many people feel that since there are 800 numbers available to veterans, this is the simple solution. But thinking back a minute, people trained to serve others and show only strength will rarely dial that number; it can be felt as a sign of weakness.
Veteran suicide and so many other issues facing our veterans and service members today stretch men’s and women’s souls to the breaking point. I think to put it into perspective you should picture each of those pairs of boots and realize that, along with the person who ended their own life come the lives of spouses or significant others, parents and grandparents, siblings and, most tragically, children that will grow up with the loss of a parent. Each of those pairs of boots actually represents many, many people.
Organizations like Operation: 23 to Zero are trying to move mountains on the issue of veteran and active duty suicide. There are many people out there carrying the water on this issue and others, volunteering parts of their lives for the lives of others. If you find it inside of you, go out there and find a Legion or VFW to contact. Search veteran’s issues on the Internet and feel free to contact any of these organizations. Most will certainly have the opportunity for you to help in one way or another.
The men and women suffering in silence are a very special breed. The very first veterans won our freedom in the Revolutionary War. Since then they have served and fought to maintain those freedoms, and future veterans will be there to ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy the same great freedoms that we have long into the future.
Curtis Hendel,
Adrian Veteran

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