Memorial Day for KIA and Those Who Never Left the War

Holidays should always be meaningful. They should never be reduced to arbitrary platitudes or token memes shared on social media. And Memorial Day should mean more than just a barbecue and a good sale on mattresses.

As the wife of a U.S. military veteran, I give thanks every Memorial Day that I never have to leave flowers on Eddie’s grave. He was lucky to make it home after each deployment during his 32 years of service.

This year, we were in Kentucky for Memorial Day. We paid our respects at the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery in Grayson. We also stopped by the Greenup County War Memorial. As we were visiting these places, I thought about what message I wanted to deliver for Tuesday’s Rivervine YouTube video.

My first thoughts, of course, went to the 13 service members killed in a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan last summer. There were 11 Marines, one soldier and one Navy hospital corpsman. The United States had a total of 1,833 military personnel killed in action during Operation Enduring Freedom, which is one of the conflicts my husband served in. I am so thankful his name wasn’t among those numbers. And I will never lose my appreciation for the lives lost while wearing the uniform.

For some veterans, though, the war never ends. In 2019 alone, 6,261 veterans died by suicide. This is 52.3% higher than non-veterans in the U.S. Those aged 55-74 were the largest population subgroup, accounting for 38.6% of veteran suicide deaths in 2019. Veterans aged 18-34 continue to die by suicide at nearly twice the rate than other veteran age groups, overall.

The Veterans Administration has implemented its National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. The program takes a public health approach to veteran suicide, and combines both community-based and clinical-based strategies across prevention, intervention, and postvention areas of focus.

Additionally, there are several community groups that are helping veterans deal with their mental health and other life issues.

Here in Northeast Kentucky, we have Operation Odyssey Outdoors. It’s a 501(c)(19) non-profit organization that exists to serve veterans of the United States Armed Forces that have served in imminent danger areas across the globe and of all eras. Its mission is to honor veterans and their family members by engaging them in the healing components of the great outdoors, promoting camaraderie, wellness, and empowerment. They are based out of Grayson, Kentucky but their Facebook group is open to all. I’ll post a link to it in the description box.

When I lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, there were two businesses that really did a lot for veteran suicide prevention. One was Summit Equestrian Center that offered free equine therapy (a $350 value) to military veterans. Horses are known for being peaceful animals that can help humans relax and de-stress. Horsemanship teaches people emotional regulation, nonverbal communication, and self-confidence, among other skills.

Another group was FW22, which facilitated community involvement in the support and assistance of veterans suffering from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Their big event every year was a 22k hike around the city raising awareness of the 22 veterans a day that take their own lives due to struggles with mental health ailments. They also host motorcycle rides, bowling tournaments, and other get-togethers.

There are so many support groups out there. I love to see people coming together to fill a void in society. I just don’t have a lot of faith in bureaucrats and politicians who approve, design, and manage government programs in piecemeal instead of having a comprehensive system of care so the job gets done right.

Our high veteran suicide rate is just one indicator that there are huge gaps in this country’s approach to mental health. School shootings are another indicator. The U.S. has had 288 school shootings since 2009. That is the more than all other countries combined. The country with the next highest number is Mexico with 8. As much as we talk about gun control, the firearm is the last coping mechanism used by someone who has fallen through the holes in America’s pathetic patchwork that tries to pass as a safety net.

This country’s system for mental health is an abomination. I’m glad we’re finally out of Afghanistan after 20 years, but we need to do a better job of taking care of those who wore the uniform for the United States of America.

Who in their right mind is going to volunteer for the armed forces if they know they’re going to get screwed when they come home? And what kind of fighting force can we be if our service members are broken before they even enlist?

There is so much hope, so many caring people who want to do more than offer arbitrary platitudes or share token memes on social media. But somebody has to actually do it! The government needs to fund programs than ensure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare, not this patchwork quilt with gaping holes that tries to pass as a safety net.

In the meantime, we the people can support our troops by donating money, volunteering our time and talent, and promoting on social media those organizations that are taking meaningful action to strengthen that safety net.

Published by Gwen Clayton

Gwen Clayton is a freelance writer living in Ashland, Kentucky. She is the former editor of the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, and has written for numerous other publications since 1986. Her first book, the paranormal thriller "Fermata Cellars," was published in 2016, and her Bible-inspired short story, "Purr: A story of love, lions and a Hebrew named Daniel," was released in 2019. She recently finished writing, "Zinfandel’s Grimoire," which is the sequel to 'Fermata;' that book is in the editing and design phase of publication. Her current works in progress include the third book in the Rivervine Trilogy, tentatively titled, "Comatis Unveiled," and the nonfiction, "Dragon's Poker Table: A rocker chick's breast cancer journey." Her books are independently published under the imprint, Rivervine LLC. In addition to writing books, Clayton contracts as a copywriter for local, small businesses.

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