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Awareness, money raised to combat veteran's suicide

Jim Kuiken introduces Freedom to a new friend

Hollywood, MD -- Every day 22 veterans commit suicide. A day-long campaign called Stop 22 on Friday June 12 in St. Mary’s County was aimed at doing something about that by raising awareness and raising money for a unique program for veterans.
During morning rush hour along the Route 235 corridor, 22 groups of volunteers waived Stop 22 signs to let passing motorists know about the gravity of the problem.

The Stop 22 campaign was organized by Marine Corps wife Abby Mills, who also has what she calls “four Marine Corps brothers”. One of those brothers, after multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, was going through a crisis but fortunately he was helped before it was too late.

Mills is now passionate about providing help to as many veterans as possible to reduce the horrific suicide toll, not only for the loss of a human life but also the impact on the veteran’s family and friends.

Mills works for defense contractor BCF Solutions, which has an office on Airport View drive in Hollywood. Her employer helped Mills spearhead the effort and sponsored an open house Friday afternoon that included providing access to a number of resources for veterans and also speeches by a number of subject experts.

The recipient of the monies raised by Stop 22 will be K9s For Warriors, “a program that pairs rescue dogs with military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disability, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma,” according to information provided during the open house.

After an extensive training regimen for the dogs, a match is made. Then each veteran is given an in-house 120-hour training program at K9s For Warriors facility in Ponte Vedra, FL. The training includes “public access testing, equipment, seminars, veterinary care, all meals and housing at no cost to the veteran.”

It costs more than $20,000 per dog to get them ready to work with the veteran. The goal of the day, according to Mills, was to raise $22,000 to sponsor a dog.  During the open house 32 people pledged to give $22 a month for a year to help with that cost.

One of the speakers was Denis Oliverio (shown above), who after a career in the Marine Corps lived in the area and worked for a local defense contractor. “We all have traumatic situations in our life. Just about everybody has their own story,” he said.

Oliverio’s story is one of being seriously wounded and having his life saved by a fellow Marine. The Marine who saved his life was Lcpl Jared Malone. Oliverio still keeps in touch with his friend Jared, his wife Heather, and their soon to be twin children.  His severely shattered arm required 15 surgeries. “I am lucky to be alive, and I’m lucky to still have an arm,” he said.

Oliverio’s service dog “Winchester” is named after a Marine who gave his life for our country not far from where Oliverio was shot. Oliverio met Winchester’s mother at an event, who later told him she was sponsoring a dog for a warrior.  The dog she was sponsoring just so happened to be scheduled for the same class as Oliverio.  Oliverio thought it was an amazing coincidence that he was then paired up with Marianna Winchesters dog, but later would remember, and believe, what Albert Einstein once said- “coincidence is merely Gods way of staying anonymous!”

Oliverio is now development director of K9s For Warriors. He is convinced that is the reason his life was saved. “Why I am here is why I survived. That’s truly the reason I was put on earth.”

Oliverio is proud to report a 100 percent success for the program – none of the 167 veterans who have received a dog has attempted suicide. “You have no idea what that dog can do for somebody,” he said.

“We save the dog so the dog can save the warrior,” Oliverio explained.

Somebody who also knows first-hand what a dog can do for them is Jim Kuiken, who lives in Northern Virginia. He pointed out that he is not an employee of the program but just one of the many recipients of dogs from the program. In his military career Kuiken was seriously injured several times but kept going back until he retired with 30 years. But a civilian job with the Department of Homeland Security found him deployed again.

He was a vice president of his own company, unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Texas and things were going okay until everything imploded financially. “2013 was bad. 2014 was really bad,” he explained.

At one point he took a security survey and learned he had “maxed out” in terms of being prone to suicide. He was asked if he had ever thought about suicide. “I’m a Marine. I suck it up. I lied and said I hadn’t thought about suicide.”

But he started doing research online and every time the K9s for Warriors program popped up. He decided to try it. “I know I was on the edge and I don’t believe I would have made it until; 2015,” he said with his dog Freedom by his side.

Freedom was sponsored by PetSmart Charities and was named through a national contest. He was abused before being rescued from a shelter.

Now Kuiken is in the process of finishing the first of a series of books that are based on his life in the military and as a policeman.

Also speaking at the event was Sonny Fann, major, USMC (ret), who works with service members transitioning out. He asked for a 22-second pause of silence “for those who are not going to be with us tomorrow.” He said during that period of time, ”Someone has lost a loved one, parent, child, brother, sister, aunt or their best friend.”

“The sad part of it is it is preventable,” Fann said. ”We cannot wait for others to fix it for us. We have to fix it for us. We have to get together and say – No more!”
Continuing Fann said the problem won’t be solved with just bumper stickers. “The community has to rise up and say – No More!”

He observed, harkening back to what George Washington has said after the Revolutionary War, that a nation stands on how it treats those who served before them, “This is a national security interest.” He said if this generation doesn’t support its veterans, will the next be willing to stand and fight.

Fann said the solution to the problem is easy – “You have to give them a reason to live.”

Fann, a Vietnam War veteran, said today, 40 years later, 31 percent of that war’s veterans still have chronic PTSD. “That is the ingredient for disaster,” he concluded, noting that original efforts were aimed at the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans but now have been expanded to all wars. He said four times as many Vietnam War era veterans have committed suicide than were killed in combat.

But, he said he was especially concerned about today’s returning young men and women. “I worry about the 18-22 year old without education or work experience. Now (after returning) their whole world is turned upside down. That’s a recipe for STOP 22.”

There is the belief among people working on the issue that the 22 veteran suicides a today is grossly underestimated, because of reporting inconsistencies and because several larger states aren’t even included in the statistics.

Also speaking was Sen. Steve Waugh [R - 29th District], who said the returning servicemen bring back with them an “extraordinary amount of stress.” He added, “It (suicide) does not have to happen.” Waugh was the 32nd contributor to the $22 a month for a year fundraiser.

Also on hand to provide information to the veterans attending the open house were representative from Maryland’s Commitment to Veterans, Pastoral Counseling Center of St. Mary’s and Melwood’s Operation Tohidu.

For more information about K9s For Warriors go to: http://www.k9sforwarriors.org/

To make a donation to the Stop 22 campaign go to: http://k9sforwarriors.donorpages.com/MyEvent/BCFStop22/

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

The Bay Net Photo Gallery by Dick Myers and Ron Bailey.

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