On the 22nd of every month, a group of local veterans meets in Radford to discuss suicide awareness and prevention with their fellow comrades.
The Marine Corps League New River Valley chapter has been involved with the 22BuddyCheck, a movement started on Facebook encouraging veterans to check on one another’s well-being at least on the 22nd of every month.
About three years ago, the league decided to take the mission one step further with monthly face-to-face meetings for veterans of all branches in the NRV, according to Ted Veggeberg, a Marine veteran who served for 26 years and who saw combat duty. He is the commandant of the NRV chapter.
“It’s for anyone that supports the cause [suicide prevention], veterans, friends, family or whoever,” he said.
The number 22 was chosen because it’s the number widely used for the amount of veterans who commit suicide every day in the U.S. The number was down to approximately 17 in 2017, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Harold Ross, 78, who served in the Marines for 27 years, including a long duration in Vietnam when he saw combat, has been involved with the movement since its inception.
“Sometimes people don’t want to talk; they just want to be around people who are like them and know what they’re going through,” he said.
Ross said the group started small, with maybe only seven or eight people showing up to the monthly meetings. But with social media, word of mouth, T-shirts and reaching out to different groups, it’s not uncommon to have 40 or so people show up to the Macado’s in Radford each month.
At the November meeting, veterans and friends from the Korean and Vietnam wars piled into the corner section of the restaurant, along with younger servicemen who served in more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mood was jovial and pleasant as they greeted one another the way old friends would. Talk about military life occurs, but oftentimes it’s just people with similar experiences hanging out and having a few beers and a bite to eat, according to Veggeberg.
“We take time halfway through the meeting to go over some stuff that may help someone recognize someone they know is struggling and basic tips on how to help them,” Veggeberg said.
For example, Veggeberg took a few minutes at the November meeting to talk about a simple system to be used in crisis situations. QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade and Refer, is a tactic often used in an emergency.
It gets people to recognize how seriously someone may be considering suicide, then try to persuade them not to do it before finding medical professionals to help the individual.
Mark Shelton, 26, an Army combat veteran who now attends Radford University, said the group has helped him adjust to life post-service. He said he often felt isolated and abused alcohol to cope with the drastic change leaving the military had on his life.
He now is an active member of the group pursuing a double major that he hopes will allow him to work for Veterans Affairs to help others who may be struggling with civilian life or other issues.
“I really find a great group of people here, and it’s helped me tremendously. We are all different, but we share common experiences and are part of a brotherhood that most people can’t understand. I love this group,” Shelton said.
Veggeberg, now a goat farmer living in Pilot, said anyone is welcome to attend the meetings regardless of where they live. To simplify the process, the group has made the Radford restaurant their home for multiple reasons.
“It was hard to build a group changing venues every month. Now it’s simple. We meet at the Radford Macado’s on the 22nd of every month from 6 to 8 p.m. And we get food for half price, so that hasn’t hurt attendance either,” he joked.
Asked about whether or not he’s seen people who’ve been helped by the meetings, he responded “absolutely.”
“I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how close they were to giving up. That’s why we are here, to tell people that there’s hope and we’re here to help,” he said.