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One man’s mission to raise awareness of vet suicide with ‘Flags for Forgotten Soldiers’ memorial

The Flags for Forgotten Soldiers display at the VA in Fort Thomas, KY. (Flags for Forgotten Soldiers/Facebook)
July 04, 2018

Howard Berry is the man behind ‘Flags for Forgotten Soldiers, a traveling memorial consisting of 660 flags – commemorating the 660 veterans who claim their own lives every month – and a banner to entitle the memorial’s purpose.

“My son’s death propelled me into this,” Berry recently told American Military News.

Berry’s son, Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry, was a 1st Infantry soldier who served in Afghanistan and later survived the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. Josh Berry, like many other veterans, received inadequate VA care and stigma toward his severe PTSD. He took his own life in 2013.

“I’ve been placing flags on vet graves for years. I never thought I’d be doing it with my son,” Howard Berry said.

Since losing his son, Howard Berry has met many families of fallen soldiers and listened to their stories. He believes it’s important that no fallen soldier is forgotten.

“I go every week to do ground maintenance and make sure the sun doesn’t set without a flag being placed on every grave,” he said.

By chance, a gentleman at a cemetery gave Howard Berry two carloads of flags. He ended up with 3,000 flags and no idea what he would do with them, but was sure he would figure it out.

Howard Berry tracked down the owner of a hilltop property overlooking downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The owner, a World War II veteran, gave Berry permission to place a flag display on the property in March 2017. That display marked the first in his efforts with Flags for Forgotten Soldiers.

Now, the traveling memorial has reached 25 states, but Howard Berry won’t stop until a memorial is placed in all 50 states. He does it “to raise public awareness, because you don’t hear anything. You don’t hear anything from anybody in Congress.”

Families of fallen soldiers reach out to Howard Berry to host the displays.

“They’ve lost loved ones,” he said. The families work alongside Berry to place each of the 660 flags.

Howard Berry raises funds through GoFundMe to support the $750 cost of flags and banners for each new display. A display is placed in a location for one month before it is bundled up and transported to the next site.

Flags for Forgotten Soldiers is just one of Howard Berry’s efforts to confront and seek change in the veteran suicide crisis.

He has visited Washington, D.C., twice to speak with lawmakers about his son’s experience and the overall lack of care in the VA. He regularly attends VA town hall meetings, writes members of Congress, and speaks to whoever will listen.

He feels he owes it to his son and all the other forgotten soldiers. “I can’t understand how America is okay with this,” Howard Berry said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs just released 2015 veteran suicide data on Monday.

Its own report found “an average of 20.6 active-duty Service members, non-activated Guardsmen or Reservists, and other Veterans died by suicide each day” in 2015.

However, the VA’s previous report of 2011 data showed that number was 22 veterans per day.

The sudden decline raises questions, as suicide rates have steadily increased in both veteran and non-veteran populations.

“The numbers are being unreported,” Howard Berry said of the veteran suicide statistics.

Howard Berry isn’t the first to raise these concerns. Many families of forgotten soldiers say their loved ones weren’t included in the suicide data.

Luana Ritch, a veterans and military families coordinator in Nevada, told CNN that there is no standard system or procedure for reporting veteran deaths in the U.S.

The coroner or funeral director determines whether or not to include veteran status on the death report and certificate, and it’s not verified by the VA.

“Birth and death certificates are only as good as the information that is entered,” Ritch said. “There is underreporting. How much, I don’t know.”

Levi Derby, who died by suicide in 2007, was one forgotten soldier who was not in the VA system. Illinois didn’t send veteran suicide data to the VA.

Joshua Berry’s death by suicide in 2013 was also not included in the Ohio VA’s veteran suicide data.

Further, the stigma associated with mental illness pressures families against divulging a suicide, who may then pressure state coroners to list a different cause of death. Veterans who take their own life by intentional car crashes or drug overdoses also may not be reported as suicides if a note isn’t left behind.

The VA doesn’t receive reports for these cases to include in their veteran suicide data.

The VA’s latest suicide data report repeatedly highlights the differences in suicide rates between veterans treated at the VA and veterans who are untreated. They maintain that the rates are lower for treated veterans.

However, the VA’s lack of mental health services has been a longstanding issue.

Numerous reports have zeroed in on the VA’s insufficient resources and capacity, which actually increases the veteran suicide rate, according to one 2017 mental health study.

Many treated at the VA are prescribed hoards of medications and are told to “deal with” their mental traumas.

Howard Berry longs to see a change in the VA that failed his son and so many others, but the fight is tiring.

He has focused his recent efforts on Flags for Forgotten Soldiers to spread awareness. He hopes people will do their own research on the issue and raise their voices to make a change.  

“I don’t have to do it, but I try. It’s an honor,” Howard Berry said.

He plans to release a book with photos of the flag displays accompanied by stories of forgotten soldiers. He hopes to raise enough funds to keep the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers tribute running, and donate to causes like DV Farm in New Hampshire, which helps veterans with addictions and homelessness.

DV Farm is also currently hosting a Flags for Forgotten Soldiers memorial.

“People tell me to keep going, and I’ll try to,” Howard Berry added.