An Arizona man is riding cross country to pay tribute to his friend, Keith Miller, an East Islip Marine who took his own life two years ago.
JR Matzner, 34, began his 23-day motorcycle trip in Yuma, Arizona, on Sept. 1, the anniversary of Miller’s death. He is making stops in cities across the country to talk about veteran and active-duty member suicide as part of Project Miller 22 Plus 1, an initiative launched by Miller’s mother and Long Island-based nonprofit Angel Bikes.
Matzner will end his trip Saturday at the East Islip Marina for a veterans expo, according to Miller’s mother, Margie Miller.
Twenty veterans die by suicide every day, on average, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study. The Pentagon reported in 2016 that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves the previous year.
The VA had previously estimated a daily average of 22 veteran deaths by suicide in a 2012 report.
“It’s an epidemic that shouldn’t be happening,” Matzner said in a phone interview. “We’re hoping this helps people understand and that it shows veterans that there are people out there who know how to get you help.”
After her son’s death in 2015, Margie Miller, 50, of East Islip, wanted to honor the veterans and active-duty members who have struggled with their “hidden wounds,” she said.
Last year, Matzner came to her with the idea of riding cross-country. He had originally planned to build a chopper and ride it out to East Islip as a way to remember Miller, but Margie Miller wanted to do more.
She had a custom bike built on Long Island. Painted a bright red, the motorcycle has written on its saddlebags the names of 22 veterans who died by suicide, while its fender memorializes an active-duty service member who died by suicide.
Miller, who died at age 22, is memorialized on one side of the motorcycle.
“This has been a way for me to heal and not just honor my son, but know that I am helping to give comfort to other families that their loved ones have not been forgotten,” Miller said.
The experience has been transformative for Matzner as well. On his trip he’s met dozens of veterans and family members of the people whose names are written on his bike.
“It’s heart-wrenching to hear these guys tell their stories,” Matzner said. “I hope this can help get the message out there — that there are people like myself and the Miller family that will help you and stand by you.”