The numbers aren’t pretty: On average, an American military veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, which totals 22 per day, according to a study released earlier this year by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Department of Defense is trying to reduce that rate and help returning veterans readjust to civilian life.
Upon returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers in the Army Reserve and National Guard are now required to attend three weekend events – called Yellow Ribbon Weekends – held 30, 60 and 90 days after returning from deployment. They go to wellness classes and meet recruiters from businesses and schools.
From Friday to Sunday, the Niagara Falls Conference and Event Center played host to a Yellow Ribbon Weekend.
It wasn’t easy to tell that it was a military event. None of the soldiers were in uniform, and the military officers who organized and ran the event weren’t in camouflage, but in collared purple shirts – all part of their effort to create a relaxed atmosphere for soldiers.
“This is one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done,” Staff Sgt. Richard Gentile said of the 99th Regional Support Command, which hosted the event over the weekend and is headquartered in Fort Dix, N.J. “Because me – as the father of three kids, one that’s in the military; my son is a specialist in the Reserves – I see how important this is.”
Returning soldiers brought their families – day care services were even provided – and could learn about everything from starting a new business and writing résumés to preventing suicide. They came from military units across 13 states, from Virginia north through Maine.
Sgt. Cassandra Landrum, of Queens, has been a paralegal in the Army Reserve for nearly seven years. She returned from a year in Bagram, Afghanistan, just before Thanksgiving, and she described the process of becoming a “regular person again” as a “culture shock.”
“How do you deal with your friends? How do you deal with your parents? How do you deal with your family? How do you deal with your job? And they offer a lot of assistance in helping you understand what you’re going through,” Landrum said of the Yellow Ribbon program.
Landrum is now in her first semester as an undergraduate at Columbia University, which she’s paying for with help from the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, commonly referred to as the “new GI Bill.” Landrum one day wants to attend law school, and she said the Yellow Ribbon program has helped her navigate through the post-deployment confusion. And she’s enjoying Niagara Falls, too.
“You get to go and walk to the falls,” Landrum said of the downtime walk at the end of each day. “It’s not like being in Orlando and there’s only Disney and all these superexpensive things to do. This is a really nice walking town. And especially us, being from New York, we’re walkers.”
Throughout the weekend, Gentile and Maj. John Weaver teach courses in “resiliency.” Weaver talks with the soldiers about “avoiding thinking traps” by looking at situations from multiple angles and “detecting icebergs,” or identifying underlying beliefs that cause veterans to act negatively.
“ ‘Resiliency’ seems to be the new – I hate to say ‘buzzword’ – in the military, with the increasing suicide rate,” Weaver said.
If veterans are feeling depressed, there are resources available, said Staff Sgt. Jeff Campbell. “It’s all right to talk about things and not hold it in and go through problems,” Campbell said. “There are people around.”
Readjustment, however, is not only about the right frame of mind, organizers said – it’s also about finding a job or seeking an education. Representatives of schools, including Columbia Southern University and DeVry University, and companies such as investment bank Merrill Lynch and trucking giant Schneider National were on hand to recruit veterans.
Chuck Ceccacci, who trains Schneider drivers and used to drive for the company himself, said Schneider helped him establish a new life after he got out of the Marine Corps in 1997.
He stood Saturday next to one of the company’s six “Ride of Pride” trucks, which have been issued once a year by manufacturer Freightliner since 2002 and are decorated with military tributes. Only veterans, who compose about a fourth of Schneider’s fleet, can drive them, Ceccacci said.
When he trains new drivers, Ceccacci said, his best students are military veterans because they are disciplined problem-solvers and leaders.
“There are good civilians, too,” Ceccacci said. “Not knocking civilians, but the military guys that I’ve experienced in teaching classes are always the ones who excel.”