Over Highway 66, across Lake Ray Hubbard, drivers may notice a new sign that veteran advocates hope will make a big change.
Nearly two years into a monthly Walk the Bridge initiative, in which volunteers walk two miles on the 22nd of each month to raise awareness for veteran suicide, the bridge now bears the name Heroes Memorial Bridge.
“This is not just a structure anymore. It’s a symbol of unity, respect, reflection and it’s a journey,” said John Salerno.
When Walk the Bridge first started, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs estimated that roughly 22 veterans died by suicide each day.
Today, the research is mixed, but Salerno said some studies put it closer to 26 or even 30.
As a retired New York Police detective and now a member of Badge of Honor, he works hand in hand with other advocates like Rowlett police officer Jeff Freeman and Army veteran Gabriel Kanawite on grassroots efforts to provide resources for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s a combination of frustration, aggravation, loneliness. It all contains one thing. And that is the stigma behind what we go through as veterans and as first responders,” said Gabriel Kanawite.
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Kanawite made his first suicide attempt when he returned from his deployment in Afghanistan. His second followed a return from Iraq.
“I felt probably the loneliest I’ve ever felt in years,” said Kanawite.
He said he didn’t know where to turn.
Today, as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, he works to make sure others don’t find themselves in that position.
But despite several programs through the V.A. and a recent initiative from the White House to raise awareness for the problem, Salerno, Freeman and Kanawite say there simply aren’t enough resources and funding from the government.
Instead, they must rely on spreading the word about community programs like the Veterans’ Resource Outreach Center in Rowlett to make sure everyone who needs help can get it.
Still, they say the biggest barrier in confronting a high number of suicides is removing the stigma around mental healthcare that’s been around for generations.
“For whatever reason as first responders, veterans, we’re not supposed to get injured that way. It’s not a physical injury so it’s hard to process what’s going on with me? What’s wrong with me? I can’t say anything, because I’m going to look weak,” said Jeff Freeman.
But now with a monthly effort to spread awareness, extended by a sign that will be seen by drivers 365 days a year, these advocates believe they're taking a big step towards changing that.
With the help of Blue H.E.L.P, a Heroes Bridge Memorial Park will also be created on the Rowlett side of the park for the military and first responder families who've lost a loved one to suicide. To learn more or donate, click here.