EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Volunteers from the 177th Fighter Wing, the Egg Harbor Township Police Department and the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers organization placed 660 American flags outside the 177FW Aug. 31 to symbolize the number of veterans who commit suicide each month.
Howard Berry started Flags for Forgotten Soldiers to bring awareness to the staggering amount of veterans who take their own lives.
Berry’s son, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry, was injured in a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. Suffering from anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he took his life four years later. The loss of his son pushed Berry to found Flags for the Forgotten Soldier.
The event at the 177th, in support of the Flags for the Forgotten Soldier organization and during Suicide Awareness Month, was organized by Jennifer Baldwin, director of psychological health at the 177FW.
“Everyone takes away their own meaning when they look at the flag,” said Baldwin. “If you’re looking at the flag, or you see one at a sporting event, people might be kneeling, they might be standing, and they might take off their hat or salute. Everyone has their own experience when they look at the American flag and what it means to them. So, being able to see 660 flags representing how many veterans die every month, by their own hand, is almost like a ‘gut check.’”
U.S. veterans realize and appreciate the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers organization and many other organizations dedicated to advocating for veterans.
“I’ve talked to and worked with lots of Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors who’ve been by the 177th,” said Baldwin. “I asked them, ‘How did that make you feel?’ and they said: ‘Good. Someone is recognizing that our service matters. And that not just our service matters, but our lives beyond our service matter.’”
It is an unfortunate fact that not only is the amount of veteran suicides high, but the suicide rate in the U.S. Air Force had a 33 percent increase in 2019, at 137 cases across active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves, said www.military.com.
“The Air Force doesn’t have the same numbers (of veteran suicides) as the Army, but when you look at the Army Reserves and the Air National Guard per 100,000, we are higher,” said Baldwin. “The Army has a lot of people, but their rate of suicide amongst theirs is lower than our rate of suicide.”
Baldwin said there are a lot of misconceptions about suicide.
“As much as it might seem like an impulsive reaction, there are things that happen long before suicide that we can use to start speculating how and why things are progressing to an unhealthy state,” said Baldwin. “There are so many myths in regards to the victims of suicide; that people think it’s a selfish act, or that they’re seeking attention. The truth of the matter is that oftentimes, they’re very ill.”
Baldwin said we can help those who are suffering while they’re still here.
“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable,” said Baldwin. “That is my bottom line. If we can talk about what experience someone has, or what they’re thinking or feeling, or what action they’ve had taken against them or against someone else, we can deal with it. So, to me, one of the myths about suicide is that you can’t talk about it.”
Acknowledging that someone needs help and being honest with them is the first step toward healing.
“Know that there is somebody, no matter where you are in your life or experiences, who is capable and able to hear you safely,” said Baldwin. “To remind us of the importance of the fact that if you’re not OK, there’s someone that can listen and help you get through the experience and stand up to it with you.”
Baldwin encouraged Airmen who feel they are alone or can't find the help they're looking for to make use of the many resources offered by the military, including Military OneSource and community-based outpatient clinics.