By WILLIAM PAINE
For The Patriot
On the 22nd of every month, a group of veterans who come from all branches of the U.S. military gather at Macado’s in Radford to share an evening meal. A recent gathering was no exception, as veterans, along with some of their spouses, began taking their seats in a reserved section of the restaurant.
The motivation behind these monthly gatherings is rooted in tragedy but founded on hope.
A study made by the Department of Defense In 2013 came to the disturbing conclusion that, on average, 22 military veterans end their lives every day by committing suicide. That number fluctuates somewhat each year but the rate of suicides amongst veterans is generally about twice the rate of non-veteran U.S. adults.
After the results of this study were announced, different veteran’s groups including the VA, VFW, the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion began urging their members to call their veteran acquaintances, so as to check on their well-being. In recognition of the tragic suicide statistics, the calls were to be made the 22nd of each month. This movement, known as Buddy Check 22, soon spread to social media.
In 2016, a Marine named Ted Veggeberg and some of his comrades in the Marine Corps League founded their own version of Buddy Check 22 in the New River Valley.
“We took Buddy Check 22 one step further and decided instead of calling each other, why not set up a social event every month on the 22nd, and see who shows up and see what happens?” Veggeberg explained.
“Out of respect for the 22 veterans a day, we meet on the 22nd of each month, no matter what day it is,” said Dana Jackson, himself a retired veteran. “And this is basically what we do. We just check in on each other to see if anybody needs help … to see how everybody’s going.”
Though most everyone at these gatherings come from military backgrounds, their position in the military hierarchy is rarely discussed.
“We never bring rank up,” said Tiny, a veteran of the Air Force. “I don’t know if these guys are enlisted or officers. I don’t care. We’re out of the service but we respect each other. We’ve been there.”
“Here’s the vision of what we’re supposed to do here,” said Veggeberg. “Everybody comes here and they hang out they drink a beer or drink a coke and share a meal. So, people come and go as they feel and we sit around and break bread. After seeing people two or three times, people exchange numbers and you hope that if somebody is in a dark place, and times are tough, they know they can at least call someone who understands their experience.”
“Like Ted said, it’s about breaking bread, building a relationship and then they feel comfortable,” added fellow Marine, Brian Stanford. “But then it goes way beyond the comfort level and you literally have to ask, ‘Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ That’s a tough question to ask.”
These veterans have had direct experiences in regards to individuals taking their own lives.
“I’ll bet everyone in this room has … yeah, I guarantee it,” said Veggeberg. “It touches everybody, unfortunately. I had a very good friend of mine from the Naval Academy who took his life when he was stationed in Germany. He’s not the only one. The Marines that I served with, who served under me when I was in …”
Veggeberg paused for a moment before continuing.
“It’s an important cause,” he continued. “It gives us something to sink our teeth into and it’s needed. We’re not therapists. We’ll refer them to somebody who is an expert but the idea is that sometimes people want to speak to someone who understands their experience and not necessarily someone who’s a clinically trained counselor or psychologist.”
“I’ve thought about suicide three times,” Tiny admitted. “That’s since I’ve gotten out of the military. In the military I’ve seen death and it comes back to you all the time. With PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), when you go to sleep at night, you have all of these images. If anybody who has been in the service says they never thought about suicide or had an inkling in their mind about it, they’re lying to you.”
Tiny has had a total of 13 operations in his lifetime and has fallen into a coma during surgery on at least three occasions. He has a minor hernia surgery scheduled for April.
“It’s a simple surgery but with my history, I’m scared to death,” Tiny confided. “I let these guys here know about it and let them know to keep an eye on me. I about lost it. I wouldn’t talk to anybody about this except these guys and after coming here, I feel better. I’ve been here six months now. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve done.”
So why do so many veterans feel compelled to end their lives?
“I think that some of it is PTSD related,” said Veggeberg. “I don’t think you can ignore that. I also think that we label a lot of things PTSD that may not be PTSD. There’s a remarkable transformation that occurs when you transition out of the military. I did 26 years. For 26 years, I knew what to do. I knew when to do it. I knew how to do it and I knew that what I was doing was important … like really important … like people could die if I didn’t do it right.”
“Then you get out and you don’t have that anymore,” Veggeberg continued. “And now you’re just like, ‘I used to be somebody. I used to do something that was really important. I had a purpose. What the hell do I do with my life now?’ And that’s a question that not everyone’s really capable of answering. Unfortunately, people slap the label PTSD on them. That’s not PTSD. That’s just somebody who really had a purpose and believed in what they were doing and now they don’t do it anymore.”
Loneliness, especially for older vets, and financial problems are also recognized as being major causes of suicide. Every meeting of Buddy Check 22 features a speaker where these and other topics are addressed.
“The networking piece is really useful,” said Stanford. “We had a guy from the Virginia Employment Commission to come and talk about who he is and what he does. We actually had a group come in from Virginia Tech and teach a QPR (Question, Persuade and Review) class. So those connections are important.”
Brian Stanford was giving the presentation for the February meeting of Buddy Check 22.
“I’m going to talk about how we haven’t quite gotten back in the groove yet because of COVID,” said Stanford of his upcoming 10-minute talk. “Tonight, I’m going to talk about the signs of suicide that we might be missing. Like when somebody says ‘I’m good.’ You might want to follow that up with ‘Define good for me’ and that will trigger the other person to tell you about his issues.”
“I don’t know about you guys, but I was extensively taught about presence of mind in the military … being aware of your surroundings,” added another member of the gathering named Keith Covey. “You can tell when something isn’t exactly right and you just go over and say, ‘Hey what’s going on? What are you so jacked up about?’”
Since the group was formed in 2016 as a way of providing face to face meetings between veterans, it has grown in number. The group became so large that they split Buddy Check 22 into two groups. Those living in the Christiansburg area regularly meet at Mission BBQ. A third chapter of Buddy Check 22 formed in the Roanoke Valley and currently meets at Macado’s in Vinton. According to Brian Stanford, these establishments have welcomed the vets with open arms.
“A big piece of this is finding a place like Macado’s to partner with you,” said Stanford. “So, for Macado’s to come in and say we’ll give you 50% off your meals, that’s a big buy in.”
“Our Commandant, Harry Patterson, and I are going to the Marine Corps League National Headquarters convention on Thursday and I’m going to be talking about replicating this,” said Veggeberg. “Not because we’re great. We’re not great. We’re just regular but when it gets so big one grows to three, that’s saying something.”
Feelings of despair can affect anyone. Even the war hero turned movie star Audie Murphy wasn’t immune from what was referred to as Shell Shock in WWI and is now called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
“Audie Murphy had PTSD extremely bad,” said Dana Jackson. “He actually did what he could to call attention to it.”
Members of the Marine Corps. began hosting these gatherings several years back strictly for vets but recently members of Buddy Check 22 have made an effort to include civilian first responders who have had similar traumatic experiences that may be affecting their well-being in negative way.
Whatever the reason for wanting to do harm to oneself, Buddy Check 22 is there to help and individuals have most definitely benefitted from these meetings.
“Twice since I formed this group people have come up to me and said, ‘I would not be here if it wasn’t for the Buddy Check,’” said Ted Veggeberg.
A gathering of Buddy Check 22 occurs on the 22nd of every month and all are welcome. The next meeting begins at 6 p.m. this coming Friday, April 22 at Macado’s in Radford, Mission BBQ in Christiansburg and Macado’s in Vinton.