For the past three years, a striking visual statement has marked Memorial Day on the University of Washington campus: thousands of miniature flags dotting the HUB lawn.
The first year, student veterans placed hundreds of flags as a solemn gesture to underscore the significance of the holiday. The next year, the office of Student Veteran Life placed some 4,400 flags, to recognize the number of soldiers killed in the Iraq War. And in 2017, more than 5,800 flags honored the fallen in Vietnam – one flag for every 10 U.S. deaths.
This year, nearly 7,400 flags will mark the number of veterans who died by suicide in 2014 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). The display, along with a series of events beginning May 21, is meant to call attention to veteran mental health issues and the ways friends and loved ones can respond.
These statistics aren’t simply data points, said Sam Powers, director of the UW Office of Student Veteran Life. In 2017, two student veterans at the UW died by suicide.
“Instead of ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t happen here, we thought we’d open that dialogue,” said Powers, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We want to make sure that the resources are known, that veterans have a family here, and that this is a safe place for them to be.”
Veteran mental health has gained increasing attention in recent years. A 2014 study found that nearly one in four active-duty service members suffered from a mental health condition. In addition, statistics from the Veterans Administration show that veterans also have a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population. The risk of suicide among veterans is 22 percent higher than for civilian adults, according to the VA.
At the UW, the Office of Student Veteran Life was established in 2016 as a way to formalize a student group and provide programs and services beyond financial aid and other administrative needs. Funding was just renewed, for example, for the second year of a psychologist dedicated to serving veterans at the campus Counseling Center.
This academic year, a little more than 1,000 veterans – members of the reserves or National Guard, those who have been discharged or on active duty – are enrolled at UW’s Seattle campus. About three-fourths are male, and their average age is a decade older than the typical undergraduate: 33. Student Veteran Life’s office in the HUB sees at least three dozen veterans a day, from those who stop in with a question to those who like to hang out for hours with friends.
The weeklong build-up to Memorial Day is one of the largest community-oriented events that Student Veteran Life sponsors each year. In addition to the flag laying, there is a photo exhibit; a workshop geared toward faculty and staff on spotting students, especially student veterans, in crisis; and a session on coping strategies with the UW Resilience Lab and Forefront Suicide Prevention, “Coming Back from the Ledge” for student and alumni veterans.
“Our intention is to acknowledge barriers that may develop for student veterans, while simultaneously not perpetuating the stereotype that all veterans are broken,” Powers said. “Veterans bring amazing strengths to our university.”
Read more on Washington.edu.