By Sloane Martin, WCCO Radio (@SloaneMartin)
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Along several rows of steps at the base of the capitol building, are evenly-spaced, empty combat boots. Twenty have been added each day this week as a devastating visual of the hundreds of veterans and active military members who die by suicide each year. One hundred will be on display for the program’s final day Friday.
“Numbers and statistics you can rattle off all day and they don’t really mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things,” Operation 23 to Zero director David Peters said. “When you see it represented here by something physical — every person who’s ever been in the service knows those boots, they know combat boots. They know that each one is as individual as the service member that wears them. They’re each their own fingerprint…You can imagine a person standing in those boots.”
Operation 23 to Zero is leading the campaign to bring awareness to a continuing problem. Peters served in the Marine Corps for 12 years with deployments in the horn of Africa and Afghanistan. The organization provides a social network for veterans and service members returning to civilian life while connecting them with support services.
Peters says the biggest hurdle is overcoming the stigma of mental illness, which is difficult in a military setting.
“The idea that you just need to suck it up is archaic, and it needs to end,” he said. “To a certain extent there’s also a sense of mental fortitude that goes into the job that needs to be there, so it’s a very, very fine line to walk. It needs to be understood that while that mental fortitude needs to be there, there also needs to be a sense of sensitivity.”
Kelly Daly left a cigar and gummy bears at the combat boots of her son, Joel Costa. At 32, Costa died by suicide Feb. 12. He served in the National Guard in Duluth and had not yet deployed. A recent study found that soldiers without combat experience are more likely to attempt suicide.
“A lot of these kids don’t share what is going on with them,” Daly said. “They don’t share the struggles that they’re going through. The military has a facade of, ‘You need to be strong,’ and these kids need to know that there are people to reach out to.”
Thursday, Daly laid a bouquet of flowers at another pair of combat boots — one that didn’t have any mementos. She wants to work to erase the stigma of mental illness, and assist other veterans through Operation 23 to Zero. Peters says talking about mental health is critical and lending an ear to a veteran or active military member can make a significant difference.
Veterans who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press “1” or text 838255.