They were barely men, some as young as 17. Others were giggly teenage girls when they joined. Some came from the halls of high school, others from the farm, and a few of them were simply at a dead-end in their jobs or wanted a new adventure. Yet others came because their number came up and the government said, “You’ve been selected to serve your country.”
Who were they? The sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nephews — nieces — cousins, grandchildren of Americans caught up in an unwanted “conflict” driven by political discord and social unrest in the 1960s and ’70s. Call it what you will — to them it was more than a “conflict” — it was war, combat, and horrific. They witnessed the worst of human behavior and they built emotional shields to survive. And then they came home, but it was not a pretty homecoming. They were regarded as the villains who propagated war.
Years later, beginning in 2001, others responded to a different call-to-arms and were sent off to fight another war void of traditional rules of engagement. They found themselves in the streets and hillsides of the Middle East, defending against sniper fire, hidden bombs and unrecognizable enemies.
These are the veterans of Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and the ongoing War on Terror. They return home with battle scars that run deep into the heart and soul of the person. Some are unable to adjust back to civilian life, carrying a sense of rejection, anxiety and hopelessness.
The suicide rate amongst veterans has skyrocketed to an average of 20 per day, 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently released a report showing that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, with little sign that the crisis is abating.
The VA has made suicide prevention a top priority, but the trend continues. Although the population of veterans declined by 18 percent during that span of years, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually, according to the VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. It’s a crisis that cannot be quelled by the government alone. Others are stepping up.
Veteran Pat Lynch flew in helicopters in Vietnam, and as a commercial pilot for America West Airlines upon his return from the war.
It didn’t take long for him to recognize the plight of veterans who are stuck in the history of their experiences in battle and isolated from society.
Lynch founded Operation Freedom Bird in 1988 with the intent to help Arizona combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and at risk of suicide. It is named for the “Freedom Bird” flights that transported service members back to the United States after their tour of duty.
Every Veterans Day, Lynch and the organization fly 50 selected veterans on a healing journey to Washington, D.C. where they share their experiences, confront their feelings and pay tribute to their fallen comrades.
Four of this year’s participants were veterans who live here in Payson, and just returned from the 32nd Operation Freedom Bird Flight. Jim Reed, Navy, Vietnam; Mike Spires, Army, Vietnam; John Williams, Marines, Desert Storm; and Roger Zen, Air Force, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, became “Battle Buddies” helping each other on the journey. It is not a pleasure vacation ... it is a continuation of the work these veterans do to recover and move on with their lives. The four meet regularly with other veterans in a PTSD support group in Payson, facilitated by licensed professional counselor Jason Jeffries. They can attest to the importance of coming together, experiencing the camaraderie of a group of people with common history and supporting each other. They encourage other veterans to connect with the VA by contacting Jason Jeffries at the Mesa Vet Center, 480-610-6727.
Operation Freedom Bird has helped 1,350 veterans over its years of operation. The organization is proud to report that there have been zero suicides amongst the Freedom Bird participants to date. The flights are made possible by an annual accommodation of 50 seats by Southwest Airlines, plus additional support from the Arizona Coyotes National Hockey League team. Volunteers also serve the organization with donations time and money.
Additional information about Operation Freedom Bird is available at https://operationfreedombird.org.