Almost 100 people gathered Thursday night to hear the emotional stories of veterans and families who were affected by suicide, the trauma of service and the return to civilian life.
Among the featured speakers at the veterans forum was a mother who lost one son to suicide and is fighting to save another.
Other speakers include two veteran mentors in the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Veterans’ Mentor Program, a participant in that program, a retired staff sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard who lost his left arm, a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard who lost his leg and mourned the brother who committed suicide and Peter Langman, president of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
The event, “Hope, Healing and Returning Home,” was sponsored by the Veterans’ Mentor Program, Lehigh County Mental Health, AFSP and Treatment Trends, Inc. It was held at the Veterans’ Sanctuary in Allentown.
The forum was attended by several Gold Star mothers, various social service agencies that work with veterans, mental health professionals, and veterans and their families.
Six mentors in the Veterans’ Mentor Program attended the event and were thanked for their service to the program by District Attorney James B. Martin and First Assistant District Attorney Steven Luksa.
Nineteen mentors are in the program, and many of them have been since it started in 2011. They voluntarily work with veterans in the criminal justice system who
have been charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
The mentors, who receive four hours of training, help program participants find jobs, further their education, obtain stable housing, stay drug and alcohol free, access veterans’ benefits and comply with conditions of probation and parole.
They also work with veterans’ families to help them to support their loved ones.
One mother, whose son is in the program, lost her other son, his twin brother, to suicide. “We were all scrambling to find ways to cope,” the mother said, adding that she feared her living son was destined for the grave or jail.
“I felt you slipping away from me,” she told her son, who was seated only feet from her. “I saw myself losing another son. I was not going to lose you. To be honest, I didn’t think we had a chance in hell. I knew you were going to snap. I was just waiting for it.”
That moment came when the son was arrested after going on a rampage at their home.
He is attending counseling now and has regular contact with his mentor. The mother said she was indebted to the mentor and Maureen McManus, director of Lehigh Valley Pretrial Services and a member of the Mentor Program Steering Committee, for their support of her son and her family.
The mentor program, the mother said, “played a very big part in getting us through this difficult chapter in our lives.” Another program participant told the audience that he began drinking a lot and combined that with medication. He was paired with a mentor after his second drunken driving arrest.
“I thank God that I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I had lost hope in other people. I lost hope in myself.”
“I have come a long way,” he added, thanking his mentor and his therapist at the Veterans Administration clinic in Allentown.
His mentor, who served in the U.S. Army in Korea, said that when he returned from service, he would not wear his uniform in public. “I felt ashamed and guilty of my service,” he said. Fortunately, attitudes toward veterans have changed, he said.
Another speaker, retired Staff Sgt. Michael Kacer, served with the 1st Battalion, 109th
Infantry, in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Kacer, who was deployed to Bosnia and
Afghanistan, was seriously injured in a rocket battle in Afghanistan. His left arm was amputated below the shoulder, and he suffered multiple facial fractures and other injuries. Kacer speaks to schools and groups about his deployments and how they affected his life.
He spoke of his struggles with survivor guilt, anxiety and depression and how he took out his feelings on everyone around him. His moment of change came when a 14-year-old nephew finally shouted at him, “I’m not your punching bag. Get some help.” Kacer began going to the VA clinic and learned that, “As time changes, you change. You either roll with it, you roll against it or you ignore it.” The latter, he said, wasn’t an option.
Kacer said that programs like the Veterans’ Mentor Program “help us get to where we want to be.”
Forum attendees watched a riveting video of the story of Earl Granville and his brother, Joe, of Carbondale, Lackawanna County, who started basic training in the National Guard two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Within months, they were called up to provide security in Bosnia.
The brothers later volunteered for service in Iraq and returned home. Earl lost his leg. Joe, who was married with children, became increasingly depressed and guilt-ridden and ended his life in December 2010. Police found his car parked on a bridge with a Christmas present for his wife, Stephanie, in the back of the car.
Their story was highlighted in the 2013 Memorial Concert at the U.S. Capitol that featured
actors Joe Mantegna as Earl Granville and Gary Sinise as Joe Granville.