The statistic that notes 22 veterans die every day by suicide is “22 two many.”
That was the consensus of those gathered in front of the Washington Township Lake Park amphitheatre on Nov. 9, when the Knights of Columbus Sancta Familia Council held a ceremony to “honor our forgotten soldiers.”
Frank Vespe welcomed guests who included Mayor Joann Gattinelli and Police Chief Patrick Gurcsik. Albert Fratteli, a retired medic in the Army, and Fred Durso, a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, spoke of their time in service.
The Knights of Columbus Color Guard posted, then retired the colors. Members of the VFW performed a rifle salute and played “Taps.” Michael Jones sang the national anthem and “God Bless America.”
Frank Pontelandolfo, a retired Air Force brigadier general, was the guest speaker. He spoke of “moral injury” that is plaguing members of those who served on the front lines.
“Moral injury is a specific trauma that arises when people face situations that deeply violates their conscience or threatens their core of values,” he explained, noting moral injuries in the context of war include killing or harming others.
“When officers have to make a decision that affects the survival of others, or they give the image of betrayal and admission, this comes seriously into play.”
Pontelandolfo noted the work of psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and his colleagues at the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) in the 1990s who interviewed veterans of World War II and Vietnam.
“I was first debriefed on this after Desert Storm, and like most of my era, thought it was just a form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” Pontelandolfo explained. “The negative emotions became more persistent and the veteran is often overwhelmed by negative feelings.
“Generally, a specific soldier or airman performs whatever has to be done, but afterwards faces a moral dilemma,” he added. “They question if they did the right thing, and could they ever explain this to a family member?”
During the Vietnam War, Pontelandolfo and his fellow soldiers faced situations that caused moral dilemmas.
“In Vietnam, we dropped out of a C-130, which I flew, a daisy cutter or BLU-82 bomb,” he recalled, explaining that the drop enabled helicopter landing zones and triple canopy jumps. “Well, we dropped the bomb, which reminded me of a large beer barrel, between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above the ground. The bomb sat on the platform and was pulled out of the airplane by a parachute …
“Well, we missed the target on one of those drops by a quarter of a mile.”
During debriefing, the soldiers were read the Riot Act – or warning – regarding the missed target.
“The Army never thought to brief us on the collateral damage … We just thought we were making a helicopter landing,” Pontelandolfo noted, adding that the Army never told him and his fellow soldiers how many people were killed from that missed landing.
“I, like others on my crew, put that incident in (our) mental box, discussed it amongst ourselves, and swore to do better next time … “It was a moral conflict, as we later discovered.”
Those moral conflicts are happening among soldiers in Ukraine and Gaza, Pontelandolfo said.
Frank Alexander, recruitment director with the Knights of Columbus Sancta Familia Council and an organizer of the ceremony, said he is personally “familiar with PTSD.”
“When my father came home from the Korean War escalation, it was called battle fatigue,” he remembered, “now known as PTSD. The therapy he received on exiting the military was ‘Go home and forget the war.’ That was his treatment – forget the war.
“Unfortunately, he suffered from battle fatigue,” Alexander added. “He had horrible dreams and nightmares. He was claustrophobic upon arrival home. My mother shared with me stories of how he would crawl around on the ground when he fell asleep.
He also recalled how his father lived with him for the last six years of his life.
“Some nights I had to sleep outside his room to make sure he was OK,” Alexander explained, “or to wake him out of a nightmare and let him know he was home, he was safe, it’s OK …
“The demons are not in the room. That’s what they are; they’re demons.”
Alexander said he struggled with the loss of his father and honors him through the Knights of Columbus’ mission to provide continued “awareness and support” to prevent suicide among vets.
At the end of the Knights of Columbus ceremony, 22 American flags were placed in the ground to represent the 22 veterans a day who die from suicide. A bell rang after each flag was placed in the ground.