hump veterans day

Above, local veterans who gathered for the “Hump,’’ a hike from Cullowhee to Sylva to raise awareness of the 22 veterans a day who commit suicide. At right, Jackson County Veterans Organization President Tom Baker (right) meets with Jackson County Commissioner Gayle Woody following the event.

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eterans Day is officially Nov. 11. The time is usually marked by a series of events that include a parade in downtown Sylva, but as with so many things in 2020, COVID-19 made such a large public gathering a bad idea.

The Jackson County Veterans Office was able to put together a drive-through meal for veterans that was fully booked, and planned to present Quilts of Valor to two veterans today (Thursday).

But honoring veterans is more than a one-day-and-done affair. Veterans don’t stop being veterans the other 364 days of the year, and the issues veterans face require our attention for the long haul.

One group trying to keep our focus on that simple fact is The Jackson County Veterans Organization. The group conducted its annual “Hump,’’ a hike from Cullowhee to Sylva that featured Old Glory being rappelled down the face of Catamount Gap, on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Tom Baker, JCVO president, gave thanks to the Jackson County Sheriffs Office, Western Carolina University Police and the Blazing Skeletons motorcycle group, for their efforts in ensuring a smooth event, and also singled out Dickie Woodard for his efforts.

Participants in the march displayed the number 22 on their backs. Baker said “that’s the number of veterans who kill themselves every day.” The number is actually in dispute, with some experts believing it’s lower and others believing 22 represents an undercount. “Whatever number it is,” said Baker, “it’s a bad deal.”

In its annual National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report for 2019, the Veterans Administration stated the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 the rate for non-veteran adults. The report also showed veteran suicides is a sad long-term trend, with 6,000 or more veteran suicides per year from 2008 to 2017.

Numbers for 2020 aren’t in yet, but hold the potential for a spike thanks to COVID-19, which has brought an uncomfortable isolation for many Americans, including veterans.

“I’m pretty sure coronavirus has made this worse, even affecting those not suffering from PTSD,” Baker said. “The isolation is impacting veterans; it’s one more bump in the road for trying to help these veterans.”

At least among some cohorts of veterans, the trends are worsening. The Military Times reported recently that according to the annual membership survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, about two-thirds of respondents say they know at least one veteran from the post-9/11 era who has attempted suicide. About the same number said they knew someone who had committed suicide. That’s up from only about 40 percent of respondents six years ago.

More resources are being devoted to lowering the veteran suicide rate, but it remains far too high.

This year’s Hump was a part of the effort to change that. Baker said the group, which included around a dozen who did the walk and were escorted by family members, the motorcycle group and supporters, met with Jackson County Commissioner Gayle Woody at O’Malley’s, the terminus of the Hump, and discussed several projects, including an effort to help homeless veterans. “That one’s really been on our minds,” Baker said.

Sheila Setzer, director of the Jackson County Veterans Office, said help is standing by. “We have counselors and the in-patient mental care unit at the Charles George VAMC in Asheville. We have specialists at the Franklin CBOC and local VSO’s who can help and assist with resources and guidance. We also have the local Jackson County Veterans Support Group.”

Veterans who feel they are experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance. The Jackson County Veterans Office can be reached at 631-2231 or 631-8050. Tom Baker can be contacted at 508-5522.

22 lives lost a day, lives of those who gave service to the country, is simply not acceptable. Baker’s right. It’s a bad deal.

We must do better.