Christian Boschult and Laura Cortez / Contributing Writers
In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers died as a result of suicide, exceeding the 295 soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans were committing suicide every day as of 2010, up from 18 in 2007.
UNT political science senior Tristan Tucker served as an aviation ordinance technician in the Navy and has started a campaign called the “Veteran’s Tree of Life at UNT” to memorialize veterans who have taken their own lives.
“Basically, the idea [for the tree] came because down in Houston, there’s a memorial for the vets who were killed overseas, but we really don’t have anything that mentions the veterans who take their own lives when they come home,” Tucker said. “I was talking to a couple of friends of mine and we decided that we wanted to try and do something to remember those guys who are unfortunately falling into the cracks.”
Tucker said the tree will also serve to raise awareness for the issue of veteran suicide.
“Nobody really talks about the veteran suicide statistics or the problem that’s there: the underlying issue with veteran mental health,” Tucker said. “So the tree is to serve a dual purpose, both as a memorial for those guys, to raise awareness around campus and kind of have a talking point about this stuff.”
UNT Student Veteran Services director James Davenport said he is working with Tucker to plant the tree.
“I went through facilities and our donation department and they’re working together because [the tree] has to be donated, meaning we have to give $1,500 to the school,” Davenport said.
Tucker has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the planting.
“UNT said that they needed funds to keep the tree maintained and to get the plaque put in the ground and to help with the overall maintenance of the tree throughout its entire life,” Tucker said.
Earlier this month, UNT was named a top school in “Military Advanced Education,” a publication aimed to gauge the best military and veteran education in the country.
“As of last fall, we’ve got 2,700 veterans and dependents here at the school that are self-identified and receiving some sort of benefits,” he said. “Since last September, I’ve had about 1,700 students walk into this service center.”
Davenport said if every veteran student on campus donated a dollar, they could raise $2,000.
“We do have quite a few of them who come through with post-traumatic stress,” he said. “Post-traumatic stress is one of those things that very few people understand. After World War I they called it ‘shell shock,’ and ‘battle fatigue’ in World War II. They kind of drugged people up.”
Davenport said up until the 1950s, performing lobotomies was a common procedure.
“Just now, they’re beginning to do a lot of research on post-traumatic stress,” he said. “For over 100 years, people talked about it and people knew why it was, but very few people did anything about it.”
At UNT, doctoral student Hallie Sheade has been experimenting with equine-assisted counseling to relieve symptoms of PTSD among military veterans.
“Based on the participants’ reports, the initial benefit that the participants experience is being able to feel relaxed and at ease in the tranquil pasture setting and being among the horses,” Sheade said. “The veterans begin to experience trust and connection with the horses, thus enabling them to begin to try to trust in their human relationships.”
Sheade said many veterans are uncomfortable with traditional talk therapy.
“The biggest take-away from this study is that veterans can find alternative methods to traditional talk therapy to help them to move forward from trauma and learn to manage their post-traumatic stress symptoms,” she said.
Tucker said stigma around mental health issues is an underlying issue for veterans’ mental health problems around the country.
“Mental health is just falling to the wayside because if a soldier gets diagnosed with PTSD, his command loses that soldier, but they don’t replace that guy, and he just goes away,” he said. “So instead of having a 10-man team, you only have a nine-man team, and that keeps people from talking about these issues.”
Tucker said there is a lack of funding for PTSD treatment in general.
“They’re being medicated and kicked back on the road, and it’s a shame,” he said. “These guys are really being forgotten about, and it’s just a really terrible thing that we’re seeing right now.
Tucker said he wants the tree to be a lasting reminder of the struggle some veterans face when they return home.
“I want this to be a memorial that’ll be in the ground for 100 years,” he said. “That way, when the next war kicks off, somebody can look at that plaque and say, ‘The cost of war isn’t what happens overseas. It’s really what we see at home. How can we work to fix this?’”
To support Tucker’s memorial, visit http://www.gofundme.com/unttreeoflife.
For more information on counseling, visit the Student Veterans Services office on the first floor of Sage Hall or call Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.
Featured Image: Military veterans render honors during the national anthem at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons