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Foss: Flag display honors veterans who die by suicide

Foss: Flag display honors veterans who die by suicide

'It’s beautiful. And sad'
Foss: Flag display honors veterans who die by suicide
Jean Kirschenheiter placed 660 flags outside City Hall in honor of the military veterans who die by suicide each month.
Photographer: Sara Foss

In the sea of American flags is a picture and a name: Sgt. Raymond Warlikowski Jr.

Warlikowski died by suicide in August 2016, but the picture, which was placed there by his mother, Schenectady resident Jean Kirschenheiter, catches him at a happy moment.

He’s dressed in his Army uniform, and a bright, confident smile lights up his face. Looking at it forces you to consider the inner torment that caused this 41-year-old father of four to take his own life.

A little over a week ago, Kirschenheiter and a small team of volunteers placed 660 American flags on the lawn behind Schenectady City Hall.

Each flag represents the number of veterans who die by suicide each month in the U.S. — a statistic Kirschenheiter became all too aware of when her son died.

“When I got the phone call, I was floored,” said Kirschenheiter, a 61-year-old retiree. “The shock is unbelievable, that this child – that the young man you knew — is capable of this. I’m still in disbelief.”

There’s some disagreement over the exact number of military veterans who commit suicide each day — not everyone believes that the number is as high as 22. A 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs report found that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans a day died by suicide.

Whatever the number, it’s clear that the number of veterans who take their own lives is alarmingly high, and that this under-discussed problem is about which something all Americans should be concerned.

Which is why the flag display is such a great idea.

It’s simple and direct, and highlights a problem that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

I give great credit to Kirschenheiter for bringing it to downtown Schenectady, and for channeling her grief into a project that seeks to educate the broader public. 

“It’s beautiful,” one passerby says. “And sad.”

Kirschenheiter visits the flag display every day and makes a point of engaging with people who take an interest in it.

When I was chatting with her outside City Hall, a man approached and inquired about the flag display. When she explained that 22 veterans die by suicide a day, he shook his head in disbelief.

“A lot of people have no idea [how many suicides there are],” Kirschenheiter told me. “Before this happened to me, I was oblivious [to the scope of the problem]. ... We have an epidemic.”

Kirschenheiter was inspired to erect the flag display about a month ago, when she learned about similar “Forgotten Soldier” displays in other states. She got in touch with Howard Berry, an Ohio man whose son, Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry, died by suicide in 2013.

Berry raises money to purchase flags and banners for those who wish to create Forgotten Soldier displays, and he sent Kirschenheiter the flags and banner used in her display. The banner explains the purpose of the display, and also includes the number for the Veterans Crisis Line, which is 1-800-273-8255.

Warlikowski attended Schuylerville High School and enlisted in the Army after graduation, in 1994.

He spent 20 years in the Army, and his service included stints in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Bosnia and Korea. He was living with his longtime girlfriend in Melbourne, Fla., and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, when he died.

“The man I knew was not the same man who came out of the military,” Kirschenheiter said.

She said she knew that Warlikowksi had struggled to readjust to civilian life, but didn’t fully grasp the extent of those struggles, in part because he hid them from her.

Her advice, to family and friends of veterans: “Try to learn the signs of PTSD. The first signs you see, don’t sit on it. If you know a soldier, give them the crisis number.”

It’s good advice.

If nothing else, the high rate of veteran suicide suggests that military veterans are not getting the support they need when they return home.

Solving this problem requires discussing it openly and honestly, regardless of how painful it might be. That’s what Kirschenheiter is trying to do, and she said it’s been empowering.

“Raymond was my pride and joy,” Kirschenheiter said. “And now my pride and joy is gone.”

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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