A local mom reads a bedtime story to her toddler from across the ocean. More and more veterans are able to get around on golf carts. A local man drops and gives the world 22 pushups every day to bring attention to veteran suicide.
This Monday is Memorial Day, and beyond the barbecue and veneer of celebration and beer advertisements, veterans and their families experience pain that often goes unspoken. Several area residents and organizations are working to help.
Lt. Florence Choe sat in front of the camera, greeted her daughter, Kristin, and began to read “Good Night, Gorilla.” The video was sent on a DVD to the U.S., where Kristin would wait for the mail to arrive each day. She now had mom-on-demand, able to rewatch the videos as many times as she wanted.
Choe, 35, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.
This is one of United Through Reading’s many stories. The organization allows soldiers to read in front of a camera and have it delivered into their kids’.
Jeffrey Mader of Prior Lake has been on the United Through Reading board since 2009, the year Choe died. He said families need and use the service even when things like Facetime exist.
“A lot of places don’t have the network bandwidth to use that,” he said. “Command won’t allow you to use social media because the enemy can track people based on that. And if you’re on a base with broadband, you typically have a 10- or 12-hour time difference from back home.”
Plus, kids tend to want to replay the videos. Mader said keeping in touch with one’s children can improve the likelihood of a smooth reintegration when a soldier returns home.
“It’s a great way to get normalcy back in their lives,” he said, “to let them feel like they’re having an impact on their kids’ education.”
When the organization began in 1989, the organization used VHS tapes for readings. They later moved up to DVD. Now, according to Mader, the group will soon use SD cards paired with a phone application to save time and money. The step up was revealed at the group’s recent Tribute to Families event in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a self-serve app, so you can film yourself anywhere but also use it at a recording station,” Mader said.
The new app is available through both Google Play and the App Store.
“(The military) isn’t in the news as much as it used to be, when there was more active fighting,” Mader said. “But deployments haven’t slowed down.”
Almost 20,000 personnel are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, almost 20 years after the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan following 9/11 and 16 years after former President George Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Civilians and soldiers continue to die in the conflicts.
President Donald Trump has criticized “endless wars,” but his administration has proposed sending 10,000 more troops to the Middle East because of tension with Iran, The Associated Press reported this week.
U.S. forces continue to deploy around the world and spend years of their lives away from families. When they return to civilian life, reintegration can be difficult, as proven in a statistic frequently referenced by Prior Lake resident Sheldon Bryant.
He plans to do 22 pushups every day, without fail, forever. Bryant said his pushup sessions represent the average 22 U.S. veterans who commit suicide each day.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has said that figure has changed in recent years and is often misinterpreted, but suicide is 1.5 times as common among veterans as non-veterans and is more likely to be carried out with a gun.
Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month, Bryant completed day 1,000 of his unending pushup effort on May 3. All the sessions can be found on social media as proof, though Bryant added it’s not about his personal accomplishments.
“It’s just a number,” Bryant said. “You know, it’s a cost of war that nobody wants to talk about. It’s staggering. On day 1,000, that’s 2,200 people who chose suicide over life.”
Bryant said he began the sessions when a friend was participating in a public push to raise awareness and money to help the problem.
“She challenged me,” Bryant said. “We were on our way to a country western concert. I did my pushups on the party bus.”
Though 22 pushups take approximately one minute, he said, the repetition sometimes needs breaking up. It keeps people interested, he said, and thus raising more awareness.
“One day we did pushups in 22 different locations in Prior Lake and put it all together,” he said. “In Cuba, I did it at the Gary Francis Powers monument. I felt it was appropriate. I do it wherever it strikes me.”
He’s also done the pushups in Jamaica, Mexico and 34 U.S. states, sometimes in public. He once convinced saxophonist Dave Koz to do 22 pushups in San Diego. He’s also gotten 45 cops to do the pushups with him simultaneously at a police seminar.
“I’ve done it on ropes suspended in the air, I’ll spread out over the kitchen island and sink at home, I’ve done them in pools — that was in Jamaica,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop, but spending one minute to just attempt it, I think that’s a fair trade.”
As a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, he’ll head over to a Memorial Day ceremony and possibly do his session there. The community has about 60 total veterans alive and deceased, he said.
“Suicide doesn’t end the pain,” Bryant said. “It just passes it on to someone else.”
Any veteran at risk of suicide can call the nationwide veteran crisis line, 1-800-273-8255, chat online at mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention or text 838255 for confidential help.
Veterans Affairs has drawn criticism for its responsiveness to the problem.
Several veterans have killed themselves in the parking lots of department hospitals, including one at the Minneapolis facility last year that investigators blamed on health care provider errors, according to The Washington Post.
But the department has also worked to improve, expanding peer mentoring and other services.
“We’re shifting from a model that says, ‘Let’s sit in our hospitals and wait for people to come to us,’ and (taking) it to them,” Keita Franklin, VA executive director for suicide prevention, told Congress earlier this year.
Tee It Up for the Troops, headquartered in Burnsville, has partnered with Textron Specialized Vehicles to donate customized E-Z-GO carts to Fisher House, a foundation that gives comfort homes to veterans and their families free of charge.
Group members said the carts make it easier to get around places like Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs medical centers, which often have large campuses.
The program has delivered vehicles around the country for seven years.
“It’s great teaming up with E-Z-GO and working together to make our heroes’ lives better,” said Tim Wegscheid, Tee It Up president. “I truly believe our veterans and their families are entitled to be taken care of, and donating these vehicles is just one way we can do that.”
The group has hosted about 500 fundraising events in more than 40 states over the last 15 years, allowing it to donate more than $10 million to military service organizations that provide services to combat vets and their families.
“Electric shuttles that are quiet and efficient can take a whole family or injured warfighter from a Fisher House around the campus to receive therapy or see a doctor,” said Textron Communications Director Brandon Haddock.
Tee It Up and E-Z-GO found the need in 2011 after shipping one to an Afghanistan military base to help move soldiers to field hospitals. Service members returning to the U.S. with disabilities had similar needs.
“This is just a continuation of our support for veterans who do incredible things for our country,” Wegscheid said.
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