Veterans group places thousands of flags on National Mall to draw attention to suicide crisis
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 3, 2018
WASHINGTON — Thousands of American flags filled a grassy expanse on the National Mall on Wednesday morning, each of them representing a veteran or a servicemember who died by suicide in 2018 so far.
Maj. Sandra Lee Altamirano of the Army Reserve said she took military leave to help place the 5,520 U.S. flags. She recently lost three friends to suicide, two of whom were veterans.
A couple of years ago, after serving three deployments in Iraq, she contemplated suicide herself.
“Each of these flags is a name, a person. Three of them are my friends, and one could’ve been me,” said Altamirano, now a suicide prevention liaison in the Reserve. “I hope this helps people see how vast of an issue this is. It’s overwhelming. It’s a crisis.”
The flags were placed on the Mall by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, an advocacy group trying to draw awareness to the issue of veteran suicide.
On Wednesday, the scene grabbed the attention of tourists, who took photos of the small flags with the Washington Monument in the background.
A new report released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows suicide among veterans and servicemembers continues to be higher than the rest of the U.S. population. Veterans accounted for 14 percent of all suicides in the United States in 2016, yet they make up 8 percent of the population.
The rate of suicide among young veterans substantially increased from 2015 to 2016. For every 100,000 veterans age 18 to 34, 45 committed suicide in 2016 – up from 40.4 for every 100,000 in 2015.
Rates have also increased among women veterans and some members of the National Guard and Reserve.
The release of the report last week coincided with a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Several lawmakers questioned why there hasn’t been significant improvement, given Congress has increased the amount of money that it allots for VA mental health programs.
“I’m beyond frustrated about the numbers and data,” said Keita Franklin, executive director of the VA’s suicide prevention program. “Having worked in this field as long as I have, it’s frustrating. When I try to think about what we’re missing … we tend to do a lot of one thing at a time and do it very well, full throttle. Preventing suicide takes a bundle of 10 to 12 things done at full throttle, all the time.”
Of the approximately 20 veterans who commit suicide every day, 14 are not receiving health care from the VA. Part of the VA’s effort is getting veterans to seek help.
Stephanie Keegan traveled from New York to help plant flags Wednesday morning. Her son Daniel was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who died of a drug overdose in 2016 while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had waited 16 months to get into a VA mental health program, Keegan said. He was supposed to be admitted Jan. 23. He died Jan. 8.
Daniel Keegan had wanted to become involved in veterans advocacy. So now, Stephanie Keegan is dedicating her life to it. She has left her son’s photo in every House lawmaker’s office, met with VA secretaries and is involved with IAVA, in addition to other advocacy efforts.
“I get to do the work that he wanted to do, and I feel like he’s sitting on my shoulder all the time,” Keegan said. “It’s been an opportunity to educate people on what a really struggling veteran looks like because he didn’t look like anything you would expect. He was healthy as could be, but he was catastrophically ill for the last two years of his life.”
To reach the Veterans Crisis Line, text 838255 or dial 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
Sandra Lee Altamirano places a flag on the National Mall as part of IAVA's effort to bring awareness to military and veteran suicides. A flag was planted for every veteran who committed suicide in 2018 through Oct. 3 - 5,520. Altamirano planted three flags for combat veterans she knew.
MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES