5,520 flags... one for every veteran who took their own life

Elizabeth Howe
October 03, 2018 - 2:05 pm

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America hit National Mall this morning before the sun did. Starting at 6 a.m., IAVA volunteers placed 5,520 flags in the grass beside the Washington Monument. Each one representing a veteran or member of the military who has been lost to suicide this year. That shocking number is based on the estimate published by the VA earlier this month.

“The new data released last week reflects really alarming trends,” said Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer at IAVA. “We’ve got the Vietnam era of veterans that is dying at a larger number because of the sheer volume of their cohort. But we, those who are 18-34, the post-9/11 generation, are dying at a much faster rate — much faster than we recognized. Which means help is not getting to those who need it.”

As the sun rose on the Mall so did the temperature, but volunteers never complained or slowed in their efforts. Hoping to raise awareness and provide a visual representation of what is nothing short of a public health crisis, many of them had very personal reasons for why they came out to participate and support the effort. Some placed flags in honor of a loved one or because they were almost one of the lives represented.

“There are a lot of names attached to these flags for a lot of people that are here,” said Army veteran Ryan Conklin. Conklin was volunteering at another IAVA event in 2010 when he met Marine Veteran Clay Hunt.

“He was a volunteer, as I am. I got to know him. Great guy. We helped push the G.I. Bill back in 2010. We talked about suicide prevention. Unfortunately, a year later he took his own life,” Conklin said. “That’s another reason I’m here. For him. I remember my time with him here, doing this together, and I just thought it was the right time to come back.”

“A lot of us have almost been one of these numbers. Including myself,” said Katie Maximena. Maximena has served in the Navy since 2013 and deployed for 15 months to Djibouti from 2016-2017. After struggling with depression, PTSD, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide for months after returning from deployment, Maximena now shares her story with others hoping to spread awareness and understanding.

Photo courtesy of Sandra Altamirano

“If there’s anything I learned from my own experience, it’s that everyone treats suicide as if there’s a warning sign and there’s a poster child,” said Maximena. “And there’s really not. I came home and it was six months straight that I just thought about dying every single day. And nobody knew. Because everyone thought if I was home I was happy. I was smiling. I was doing things. It doesn’t matter what the outside looks like, if I looked like the poster child for suicide, it’s the inside.”

Tourists and commuters stopped on the sidewalk beside the flags to take pictures or watch. Others approached IAVA volunteers to ask about the flags, giving the opportunity for IAVA to achieve their goal of raising awareness. Others even asked to help and placed flags of their own.

“What the flags on the mall really show — it makes you feel the number,” said Army veteran Kristen Rouse. Rouse has been involved with IAVA since 2008 and is the founding director of the NYC Veterans Alliance.

“Even those of us who have those statistics as part of our daily lives — we know these numbers, we see these numbers, we analyze these numbers, we know the math. Just looking out right now at the number of flags. It really makes you feel it,” said Rouse. “And part of getting people to care and do something is getting them to feel it.”

After placing 5,500 flags, the IAVA hosted a press conference during which they placed the last 20 flags to represent the veterans and military personnel who will be lost before the end of the day today.

“There is still a lot of work to do to help our veterans and address the mental health problems they face after their service,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs during the press conference. “It’s important work that must be done sooner rather than later. The flags planted on the National Mall are a striking reminder of this issue.”