Veterans look to boost awareness of military suicides

War vets John Walis, 45, of Bay Shore, War vets John Walis, 45, of Bay Shore, and Jarrett Gimbl 32, of Holbrook, with their companions Tommy (the white dog) and Gunny, came out in support of drawing attention to veterans committing suicide at a press conference at Huntington Town Hall on April 10, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Asked whether the issue of suicide among America's military veterans has touched his life, John Walis grimaced.

"I've lost four good friends," said Walis, 45, of Bay Shore, who served in Afghanistan with the New York Army National Guard.

Jarrett Gimbl, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said several veterans he knew well have taken their own lives.

"I've known Marines who have shot themselves in the head who were married, who had kids," said Gimbl, 32, of Holbrook. "They were personal friends of mine."

Walis and Gimbl joined about two dozen veterans' advocates at Huntington Town Hall Thursday to kick off a campaign drawing attention to the military's suicide crisis.

The gathering was organized by Northport-based Cow Harbor Warriors, an Afghanistan and Iraq veterans support group that plans to spend the next 22 weeks raising public awareness -- and cash -- to help address the problem.

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Although firm numbers are difficult to come by, the Department of Veterans Affairs last year increased its estimate of suicides by veterans from 18 to 22 a day.

"It is mind-boggling that we can't protect our own once they are back," said Cow Harbor Warriors president Rocco Donnino, of Centerport.

The organization intends to hold fundraisers this spring and summer to aid organizations such as Paws of War, which trains rescued canines as soothing companions for emotionally fragile veterans.

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Donnino said other funds will be given to the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Semper Fi Fund.

The Cow Harbor Warriors' effort comes two weeks after local members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) went to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress to make anti-suicide measures a priority.

"Veterans suicide is considered the most important issue among our membership," said Zach Goldberg, an IAVA spokesman.

Goldberg said a recent IAVA survey shows that of the more than 2.6 million Americans who have served in the Middle East since 9/11, more than 2 in 5 report some difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

The organization said 40 percent of its members reported knowing someone who had committed suicide, and half knew of someone who attempted suicide.

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Unemployment, relationship problems, psychological issues and law enforcement encounters were among problems that put veterans at risk of suicide, according to the survey.

Another survey, released this month by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, found that half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans know at least one veteran who has committed or attempted suicide.

Gimbl, who like Walis has a service dog provided by Paws of War, said he's still grieving over the suicides of several veterans he knew.

He said he struggled financially himself after returning to civilian life, and hit a low point when his electricity was shut off.

"Without this dog, I don't think I'd be talking to you now," he said. "I don't think I would leave my house."

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