David Williams and Heather Allen’s visit to Western Pennsylvania lasted only a few hours, but their message is one they hope endures.
“The main message is, you are not alone,” Allen said, referring to military veterans and their families who have been affected by suicide. “There are so many people out there struggling.”
Williams and Allen stopped Monday at American Legion Post #980 along Saltsburg Road in Plum as part of their cross-country journey to raise awareness of veteran suicide. Williams, a Navy veteran, and Allen, an Air Force veteran, are traveling with the painting “Green Horse” and plan to present it Tuesday to members of the U.S. House and Senate at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The painting, completed by Williams and fellow artist Hailee Steinebach, is part of a 1,000-foot-long “Guardians of the Herd” piece. On the back are names of veterans lost to suicide, other veterans and their family members.
About 17 veterans a day died by suicide in 2019, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee in June. Additionally, veteran suicide-related deaths increased nearly 36% from 2001-19 compared with 30% for the general population, according to the CDC.
September is Suicide Awareness Month.
“It’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Williams, who served from 1980-84 and said he was aboard the USS Constellation when he was involved in an accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury.
Williams’ plan to become a software engineer was derailed when he lost the ability to do high-level math, he said. Shortly thereafter, he said, “art crept into my life.”
He founded Joint Operation Mariposa in 2015 to help bring awareness to veteran suicide. Allen serves as the nonprofit’s vice president.
Williams and Steinebach created “Green Horse” in 2018. The color green is a nod to Green Star families — those who have lost a veteran to suicide.
Williams and Allen’s trek began from their hometown of Plains, Mont., on Aug. 29. They first traveled west, to Neah Bay, Wash., before embarking on their cross-country trip Sept. 1.
They have paid for the trip on their own.
“Heather and I fund it,” said Williams, estimating the cost at between $40,000 and $50,000 out of pocket. “There are about 1,000 people in our community. Half are veterans or related to a veteran.”
Allen bought a pickup on discount from the local Ford store in Plains, Williams said, and they received a discount on a truck wrap on which veterans sign their names during each stop Williams and Allen make.
“I bought the truck,” said Allen, who served from 1995-2005. “He’s been paying for lodging and food along the way.”
Deborah Bonura of Plum was one of the local American Legion members to sign the truck.
“We have to do this,” said Bonura, who served in the Army from 1984 until December 1989. “They’re away. They’re in combat. They don’t know how to live when they come back. … They need our help, and we want to give it.”
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