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A Special Memorial Day Ceremony Honors Troops Who Died By Suicide

May 26, 2017
Originally published on June 16, 2017 9:40 am

Memorial Day can be especially difficult for relatives of service members who died by suicide. They often feel stigmatized, even around other military families.

When Army Specialist Robert Joseph Allen died in 2012, he was an experienced soldier who had driven Stryker armored vehicles in combat in Iraq.

Yet when his remains were returned home to Dade City, Fla., there was little recognition of his military service.  

"There were no law enforcement or patriot riders to escort him through the streets with flag waving citizens," recalled his mother, Cathy Sprigg.  "There was no flag lowered at half-staff in his honor."

Sprigg spoke this month at a special service at American Legion Post 5 in Tampa.  Scheduled one week before Memorial Day, the event commemorated the service of troops such as Allen, who died by suicide.

Allen took his own life in Olympia, Washington, while stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He was 27 years old and had two young sons. 

In Sprigg's mind, her son's death is directly related to his service with the infantry in Iraq. She said he returned with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including paranoia, sleeplessness, and nightmares that he was burning alive inside his Stryker.

"When my Robbie returned to Ft. Lewis Washington after his deployment from Iraq, I rejoiced and thanked God that he came home safe and sound," Sprigg said. "Little did I know he didn't; his wounds were invisible."

There's been a lot of attention in recent years on reducing military and veteran suicide. Both Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have pumped resources into suicide prevention efforts, including mental health counselors and peer support groups. A 2014 law requires all service members to undergo annual mental health assessments.

Still, for surviving family members, there's often a sense of stigma and isolation. That's why Post 5 held its special ceremony.

"The focus is on the recognition of a service member who gave his life," said post member Tony Williams, who organized the event.  "Even if it was not on the battlefield, he gave his life, and we don't want to minimize it because that's part of the stigma. We want to rejoice in the fact he's still a hero."

And for a lot of families of suicide victims, it's more comfortable to do that separately – away from the traditional Memorial Day ceremonies. 

"Sometimes it is helpful to be around others who have had a similar loss, to decrease the shame and to be with peers and sometimes do memorials separately from other kinds of losses in the military," said Kim Ruoco, whose husband, a Marine helicopter pilot, died by suicide in 2005.  She now is with TAPS, a group that works with grieving military families.

Those separate memorial services, like the one at Post 5, are still relatively rare. But for survivors like Cathy Sprigg, they can be transformational.  This was only the third time she talked publicly about her son.

Towards the end, another mother came to the microphone:  Toni Gross, who lost her son in combat in Afghanistan.  She called Sprigg back up to the front.

"When Cathy was saying her son's name and said that there was no Patriot Guard Riders there, I wanted to get up and clap," Gross said in front of the group.  "So if Cathy would say her son's name, we'll give him the honor that he deserved for serving this United States of America."

The group of about fifty people erupted in applause.

Later, Sprigg said it was one of the few times since her son died that he was remembered … not as a suicide victim … but as a soldier who served his country.  

"Talking about him as a person makes him not just a number, but an actual human being that lived and laughed and loved," she said.  "That's healing."

 

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