A showing of the independent film “Project 22” in the Memorial Union’s Coe Room was postponed from Wednesday, Sept. 18 until the University of Maine’s Veteran’s Week in November, because of sparse attendance. Wednesday’s planned screening was set to coincide with National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, which is being observed this September across Maine and throughout America. Maine’s Bureau of Veteran Services has spent much of the month hosting statewide prevention and awareness training sessions, suicide safety courses and screenings of “Project 22,” which is named for the approximate number of veteran suicides that occur each day.
“Project 22” was filmed and directed by two Iraq War veterans who had become increasingly aware of the issues faced by their returning brothers and sisters in arms. Over 22 days, and nearly 6,500 miles of travel, the filmmakers toured the country by motorcycle, interviewing and addressing fellow veterans on the common causes of veteran suicide. Many of them were willing to share the ways in which they had overcome depression, whether through the use of therapy animals, medical treatment, art therapy or other kinds of assistance.
Tony Llerena, the associate director for veteran’s education and transition services at UMaine, helps nearly 380 students receive their GI Bill certifications each year. When asked about the film “Project 22,” Llerena commented that “documentaries like ‘Project 22’ are a reminder of the pain and struggles that some of our students go through every single day,” and that it is “very difficult to watch a film like this and not feel like everyone needs to know that something needs to be done to help and support these service members and veterans.”
“Suicide in the general population is a complex issue,” Llerena explained. “It’s no different with service members and veterans. PTSD [or post-traumatic stress disorder] is one aspect that the media focuses on for veteran suicide, but studies have shown that non-combat veterans are more likely to die by suicide than combat veterans. As I’m not an expert in this area, what I have found is that some reasons are loss of identity, lack of structure after separation and the loss of brother and sisterhood.”
Asif Nawaz, a professor in the history department who is himself an active military reservist, told the Maine Campus that he has attended a lot of suicide prevention talks and interactive sessions at his reserve unit and noted that he checks up on his fellow veterans often.
“I think it is more because of a lack of employment among the returning veterans and other domestic issues, but if a vet suffers from PTSD it makes things even worse,” Nawaz said in a discussion of veteran’s suicide and how factors such as PTSD or lack of employment and opportunity can affect these statistics.
“Supporting student groups like the UMVA and connecting student veterans to one another is critical,” Llerena said. “The Veterans Center is also a veteran-friendly space for students to go where student veterans can feel like they belong. We have students who have come to us in distress in the past and we’ve found that creating a support network of veteran peers and campus support services is the best way to support someone in crisis.”
One such UMaine veteran, fourth-year history student Ryan Damato, noted the high-quality support and assistance that he has received through the UMVA. Damato explained that the transition from active service into civilian life can be challenging and lonely for veterans and that without any kind of support like job training or civilian transfer services, they often fall apart.
“I got injured in the Marines when I was 20,” Damato said. “Being a UMaine Veteran, I am lucky to have access to one of the most elite teams of Veteran assistance that I have ever encountered with the UMVA. They truly developed a space that makes us feel welcome, loved and safe.”
Another Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month screening of “Project 22” is set to be hosted at the University of Maine at Augusta on Sept. 26, at 11:45 a.m. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has partnered with Maine’s Bureau of Veteran Services throughout the month to make such events possible. Based in Augusta, the Bureau is responsible for assisting Maine’s Veteran Advocate community with their search for employment, access to education, available housing and mental health treatment. The Bureau has estimated that over 300,000 of the state’s nearly 1 million citizens have been affected by military service, whether as enlisted service members, reservists, retirees or members of their immediate family.