LEHMAN TWP. — Twenty-two military veterans commit suicide every day, Dave Ragan, president of Veterans Promise, told an audience at the Voice of the Fallen Rally at the Penn-State Wilkes-Barre campus on Sept. 22.
A visualization of the statistic was given as Ragan asked an audience to place one of 22 carnations at the base of the flag pole outside of Hayfield House.
“It is a somber moment when you think each one of those flowers represents a person who had a life, a family,” Ragan said.
Ragan, a veteran of the U.S. National Guard, along with Bill Snyder, a U.S. Navy veteran, and Lorri Vandermark, wife of former U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Frank Vandermark, shared their personal stories of substance abuse and suicide to raise awareness about mental health issues faced by military veterans and their families.
“The system isn’t working,” Ragan said. “When we took that oath and put on that uniform we made a promise to protect you and keep the Constitution safe.”
But when veterans returned home, they are “are left out in the wind, unprotected,” he said.
Ragan, a two-time suicide survivor, said when he came home after serving 10 years in Iraq, he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
His family did not understand how to handle his mental health issues. Ragan was also dealing with the guilt of being deployed while his brother was dying at home.
Ragan said he was trained to fight but stationed in a bunker at a desk job while deployed, and he also felt guilt about the loss of six men from his unit.
It had taken several trips to the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center before he started to listen to the medical specialists, take the medication prescribed and participate in support groups.
Snyder, a three-time suicide survivor and drug and alcohol addict, said after eight years of military service he spiraled out of control.
“I don’t say this to put the military down or anything, but boy, they can teach you how to drink,” Snyder said.
Snyder, who is now sober six years and seven months, is on medication to help him control his anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He now works with veterans who are homeless or recovering from substance abuse.
“Sometimes veterans don’t want to talk to a manager or a supervisor (about mental health issues),” Snyder said. “They want to talk to someone who has been there who knows what they are talking about.”
Vandermark lived the lifestyle of a military wife, beside her husband, Frank, for 20 years. She came to know the “don’t ask for help” culture first-hand.
“I remember distinctly one day (years ago) I came home and walked into the living room and he (Frank) looked at me straight in the face and said, ‘Lorri, I have an alcohol problem,’” she said. “I said, ‘OK what do we do about that?’ He said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’”
If the couple said something to Frank’s supervisors about the addiction, he would have lost his clearances and been discharged, she said.
“Don’t talk about it (the alcoholism), sweep it under the rug and stay mission-focused,” she said.
For 14 years, she worked to hide Frank’s alcohol addiction because he was afraid of losing his career.
When he retired from the Air Force, Frank did get treatment and became a teacher at West Side Career & Technical Center in Pringle.
But he never recovered from the military mindset of feeling like he wasn’t doing enough, she said.
On Aug. 13, 2015, Frank committed suicide, leaving behind his wife, a son and daughter.
Vandermark is taking a proactive stance for veterans and their families to ensure “these men and women have the right to get help and services they need.”
“We want, as an organization, to make the promise that when you come home after serving your country that we will do whatever it takes to get the benefits you need that you get help finding a job, or struggling with drugs or alcohol or if your family is struggling with PTSD and they don’t know how to deal with you,” Ragan said.