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Veterans show support at Whitt funeral

By Lee Reinsch

GREEN BAY – The recent funeral for a young veteran who took his own life put a spotlight on veteran suicide.

More than 50 members of the veteran and civilian communities turned out to pay their respects to 31-year-old Army veteran Jonathan Whitt at Nicolet Memorial Park Cemetery Friday, Sept. 27.

Whitt reportedly had no relatives in the area, so the community turned out to show its support.

Members of several veterans groups attended, including Green Bay Vietnam Veterans Chapter 224 member Wes Michael, who served in the U.S. Air Force.

He said his fellow vets were there for each other.

“We may be from different branches of the service, but we gather all our brothers and sisters to support one another,” Michael said.

Although he did not know Whitt, the occasion for the service led Vietnam veteran Dan Challe of Green Bay to think about a fellow soldier he spent time with in Vietnam.

That soldier also took his own life.

“He was my best friend at the time,” said Challe, still saddened by the memory.

Challe said he understood well the depths to which a veteran can plummet.

“I’m not saying anything beyond that,” he said.

The service came one week after the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report showing more than 6,000 veterans per year take their own lives.

Helping veterans deal with trauma

“We need to have a saturation campaign on the back end (with how to get help) like we do on the front end (with how to join the military),” said Joe Aulik, Brown County director of Veterans Services. “Once they come home, veterans are independent and on their own; they can feel isolated. We don’t advertise very well where to get help or how to get help and that it’s normal and OK. Nobody has a perfect life. There are bills and jobs and relationships, and it can all look like a huge hill to climb.”

The report put the rate of veteran suicide at 1.5 times that of the civilian population.

“It’s basically a crisis,” Aulik said. “Active duty suicide is at its highest; 150 veterans in Wisconsin each year, 6,000 in the country, and five in Brown County, take their own lives.”

Vietnam veteran Gene Wheaton of Green Bay called war hell, and said the transition to civilian life can be difficult.

“Soldiers put up their right hands and solemnly swear to uphold the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic to the point even of their own life, and it’s not just a name on a piece of paper,” Wheaton said. “It’s a big deal.”

Upon serving out the oath they made to their country and flag, service members find out the reality of combat.

“They are in the situation I call hell, day after day after day, and (they) can’t get out of it,” Wheaton said.

If they’re fortunate enough to come home alive, Wheaton said they may find they aren’t treated as respectfully as they deserve.

“They try to pick up their life again and they find out everybody’s gone, moved on, married and has a job doing their thing, and you’ve lost three years,” he said. “And you came home and got spit on.”

Trauma of war

It’s not a fair deal, Wheaton said, and then trauma sets in.

“What happens is psychologically and emotionally, it starts to weigh on you, and you turn to drugs and alcohol and all kinds of things to salve that sore,” he said. “Some guys can work their way out of it, sometimes through God … something that will give them something to believe in other than humanity, help them carry on and see goodness again, see lightness again, see happiness in other people, and realize that (war) was a terrible thing. But for the memory of the fallen, we have to stand up, carry on and live on to make them proud.”

Veterans in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text to 8382558.

There’s also an online option at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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