Kevin Hertell of Melville is third generation military. He has experienced firsthand the devastation of veteran and military suicide. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland reports.  Credit: Photo Credit: J Conrad Williams Jr.; Kevin Hertell; Staff

Virginia Cervasio didn’t see the warning signs when her son Angelo came home from the Air Force.

Cervasio, 65, of Glen Cove, said her son Angelo Cervasio joined the Air Force in 2000 and served in Operation Southern Watch in Saudi Arabia after the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks.

But when he returned home, she said her son had changed. He was withdrawn and more serious. In the days before he died at the age of 24 in 2006, he seemed more at peace, began giving away his belongings and suddenly spending more time with his family.

“He loved being in the military and all that came with it. Unfortunately, he brought everything back home with him,” Cervasio said. “When you’re not educated, you don’t know what to look for. I don’t know if it was his way to say goodbye. A calmness came over him and he was just different; nothing bothered him anymore.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • National Suicide Awareness and Remembrance Flag is meant to raise awareness for veteran mental health
  • National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • Long Island Crisis Center Hotline: 516-679-1111

She later met with Kevin Hertell, an Air Force veteran and veterans advocate from Melville who has created the Suicide Awareness and Remembrance Flag to spread knowledge of veterans suicide and seek additional resources for mental health.

Hertell has the flag flying at different events and locations in 40 states and is now working with Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) to get the flag nationally recognized through a bill in Congress.

“I created this to break the stigma and to be a tangible symbol of hope for living veterans and military to let them know that they're not alone, we're in this together,” Hertell said. “And it's a symbol that I created to forever remember and honor the military and veterans who are gone by suicide, and that helps change the perception.”

22 suicides a day 

Cervasio said that after her son's death he became a statistic — one of the nearly 22 veterans who commit suicide daily across the country. Veterans are twice as likely to die from suicide as civilians and it’s the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, according to national statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hertell created the flag following the loss of his cousin in 2016, another Air Force veteran to die by suicide, followed by a second cousin who also died by suicide.

The flag is modeled off the Prisoners of War flag and the Gold Star Service flag and includes a wreath with 20 exposed leaves to signify the number of veteran suicides every day. Hertell said he hopes to have the suicide awareness flag flown along with the POW flag over the U.S. Capitol and government buildings around the country.

Hertell met with Garbarino and other representatives who co-sponsored the bill, including New York Democrats Pat Ryan of Gardiner and Joe Morelle of Rochester along with Republicans Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island and Rep. Keith Self of Texas. The bill is being reviewed by the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Veterans Affairs.

“The reality of veteran suicide is heartbreaking and unacceptable. This flag serves to recognize those who have died by suicide and as a reminder to those who are struggling that they are not alone,” Garbarino said in a statement. “We need to stand by our veterans and members of the military and ensure that they have the support and quality care they deserve when they come home.”

Hertell said he hopes the flag makes more resources available for veterans to get mental health services and make it more acceptable to address mental health and mental health crises.

Funding needed 

Veterans advocates say that in addition to raising awareness, the flag also needs to help make more resources available.

“It doesn’t mean anything if there are no extra dollars and extra resources,” said Katie Stoll, director of The Long Island Crisis Center in Bellmore.

The crisis center runs a 24-hour hotline and counseling center, but most resources have a monthslong waiting list, Stoll said.

She said since 9/11, more soldiers and veterans have died of suicide than soldiers in combat during the wars of the past 20 years.

“I think coming out of that lifestyle and constantly being on edge, there’s a trauma in a combat zone and not knowing when you’re safe,” Stoll said. “It can be a difficult adjustment for people to make. There’s also a communal and group setting, and it’s hard not to have those bonds when you come back. It’s a huge loss, and it’s not talked about enough.”

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