Jeremy Coombs died tragically at the age of 28.
Jeremy did two tours in Iraq, as an Army infantryman in 2005 and then as a helicopter repairman in 2007, and was later stationed in Honduras in 2009. Over the course of his military career, he received multiple campaign stars and medals, including three Army commendation medals for acts of valor.
Jeremy was a hero. But that fact alone was not enough to free him from the darkness that followed him home from the service. He took to alcohol to drown out the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder and kept drinking until his kidneys and liver failed.
Jeremy didn't die in the line of duty. But he is still a casualty of war.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 veterans kill themselves every day.
And yet, the stories of people like Jeremy are often still ignored.
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, and veterans are more than twice as likely as other citizens to die from self-inflicted harm. But society in general isn't great at talking about suicide, and that stigma can be even more difficult in a military atmosphere where weakness is traditionally shunned.
"The military families who lost their loved one under these circumstances can be made to feel as though their loved one's death didn't matter as much or that they weren't actually true heroes," said Jeremy's younger sister, Amy Blaisdell.
She remembered a time when her parents were invited on a Gold Star military cruise for surviving family members — only to be unceremoniously disinvited at the last minute because their son did not die "in service to the nation," according to the military's definition.
But now, thanks to a planned PTSD monument, veterans like Jeremy will finally get the recognition they deserve for the sacrifices they made on and off the battlefield.
Created by K9s for Veteran Warriors, a support group that provides service dogs to aid veterans who are struggling with PTSD, the new Forgotten Warrior Memorial Wall at Channahon State Park in Illinois will commemorate the struggles of those who bravely served their nation and died in the fight against PTSD.
“This one-of-a-kind memorial will provide a place for family members, other veterans, and the public to honor those service men and women whose injuries, while perhaps not physically apparent, were no less devastating,” Channahon Mayor Missey Moorman Schumacher said in a press release.
The $80,000 project is scheduled to open to the public in November 2016. Families can pay tribute to their loved ones with personalized memorial bricks, which provide structural and financial support for the monument.
Blaisdell believes the monument will make a big difference for veterans dealing with PTSD — and for families like hers who are still hurting.
"The PTSD memorial brings awareness to exactly how many people in the military struggle so much that they take their own lives," she said. "Jeremy has three children. I never want them to think that his death is any less important because he suffered from a mental illness. I want them to know that he is still a hero and sacrificed so much for them and his country."
Nena Boling-Smith, an Air Force veteran and licensed social worker who specializes in helping those who are not eligible for VA assistance, agrees. "Anything that creates or expands the discussion of mental health and the effects of suicide on service members and families is good," she said. "The military has a long way to go when it comes to decreasing mental health stigma, and families coming together to do that is a great start."
By acknowledging these internal struggles, the Forgotten Warrior Memorial Wall can help families heal from the past — and pave the way for better veteran mental health care in the future.
"Military members are our relatives, our neighbors, our family and we have to take a community approach and responsibility to not only prevent suicide, but create access to treatment and understanding," Boling-Smith said. "Veterans are unique in their background, history, and reason for joining the military."
Mental health in general is still a complicated issue. And a monument alone won't change that.
But by bringing visibility to hidden struggles, we can start a conversation and make it easier for people to ask for help — and sometimes, that's a crucial step that can make all the difference.