An event worth the attention of Asheville was recently held in Fletcher Community Park. The empty pairs of army boots encircled a maple tree, which still clung to the red leaves of autumn. The boots faced outward, as if guarding the tree from the coming winter. An American flag sprouted from each pair, a reminder that the boots were a symbol for casualties from what has proven to be the most insidious of enemies. The flags were whipped by the cold wind, as if the spirits of every soldier were calling to those gathered to remember them, and to make some kind of difference in this terrible and little-known battle, a chapter of the wars soldiers have fought which continues being written long after the guns are put away.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. Such is the name we have given to the psychological scars of war. Sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and friends: The boots could have been filled by soldiers from many walks of life, of every conceivable description. PTSD does not discriminate. The unifying thread among these boots was that they were representative of veterans who, somewhere in America that day, lost their battle with mental illness and took their own lives.
Twenty-two a day. Every day. That is the number of veterans who take their own lives due to mental health issues such as PTSD on a daily basis across this country. This lonely killer haunts our culture, undealt with, difficult to talk about, the dirty secret of what war does to our soldiers. Many struggle with it alone, day in and day out, without support.
The Veteran Jam 5K was an opportunity for people from many walks of life to come together and honor those soldiers who have lost this fight and to raise awareness of the dangers of PTSD when left unaddressed. Hundreds gathered on a chilly Saturday morning, Nov. 26, at Fletcher Park to commemorate those they had lost and to show unity in the face of this issue. Despite the chill, men, women and children assembled at the park and commemorated their lost loved ones, sharing stories, reading poetry and speaking together about those they knew who had died or about the issues they faced in their own struggles with PTSD.
Despite the difficult nature of the problem, in a culture where the toughness to deal with problems personally is expected, there was a sense of community and shared responsibility which emerged from the event. One of the most important things said was that veterans may not know how to ask for help or may be too embarrassed to try reaching out.
This is where we all come in. If you know a veteran, reach out to them. Tell them thank you. Ask to listen to their stories. Share a laugh. The daily toll of veterans struggling alone with these issues is impossible to ignore, and Americans with a conscience must take action to help these men and women. If you need inspiration to get you to take action, just think of the empty boots, flags blowing in the wind, and the paths those boots might have walked, filled with purpose, had someone reached out to them in time.
— Josiah Johnston