WASHINGTON – A couple of years after he left the U.S. Marine Corps, Lyndon Villone kept trying to reach a close friend who had served with him in Iraq. When he didn’t hear back,Villone thought maybe it was best to give him some space.
His friend shot himself in the head.
Within a year, Villone had lost two more Marine Corps brothers to suicide.
And he was beginning to think about it himself.
This weekend, a coalition of nonprofits led a “Spartan Weekend” for hundreds of sick and injured veterans centered on a promise: They would not take their own life without reaching out to someone for help. And they would take that oath with their hands on a sword hammer-forged of steel salvaged from the remains of the World Trade Center.
By one estimate, an average of 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Some people debate that number from the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Steve Danyluk, who worked with wounded service members after returning from a tour in Iraq with the Marines, “but I think anybody that served in a combat unit can run through a list of people that they know that committed suicide.”
And everyone says the same thing when they hear about a suicide, said Danny Prince, a retired New York City firefighter who often visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to thank service members: “‘I can’t believe it – I would’ve done something.’ “
That is why Danyluk helped organize the event for the Spartan Alliance and Disabled American Veterans. “You don’t have to be suicidal to take the pledge,” he said. “It’s finding a mission: Help your buddy. It’s reconnecting, reestablishing those relationships that seem to vanish once you leave the military.”
People get isolated, he said, and that’s especially true for those who go home after serving rather than to a military base with others who have been through the same thing.
“It’s about the brotherhood,” said Boone Cutler, who wrote the pledge after a buddy who served in Iraq with him called to tell him about a friend’s suicide, and they both admitted they had thought about it, too. “It was a monster,” Cutler said. “It was on my mind every day.”
On the spot, he asked for a promise. “Don’t punk out: Just call me first.”
The 9/11 attacks motivated a lot of people to join the military, Danyluk said, so the symbolism of the sword is important. “It’s about transformation – taking this twisted steel that was part of our nation’s greatest tragedy and turning it into something beautiful: a weapon of healing rather than a weapon of destruction.”
The steel had been used to make memorials such as crosses and Stars of David, Prince said, but at his firehouse in Brooklyn they saved the scraps, even the filings when it was drilled. “It’s so sacred,” he said. “We didn’t want anything to fall on the ground or get swept away.”
They took 25 pounds of it to a master blacksmith in Texas. He added Latin inscriptions such as courage, fortitude, and strength, and the number of those who died that day.
After it was finished last month, the sword was loaded onto the airline cart used to carry people killed in combat with an honor guard alongside, Danyluk said.
On Sunday, Col. Matt Pawlikowski, a chaplain from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, led a Mothers’ Day service at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial near the Mall honoring women whose children are serving or have died. The ceremony closed with the pledge.
One mother brought her seven children and their spouses from Ohio. A wife came from Tennessee with her husband, who was badly wounded in Iraq and has, like many, fought addiction in the years since.
Margie Miller came from New York, eight months and seven days after her son, a 22-year-old Marine, fatally shot himself. She talked about how they spoke on the phone most days and how she had just heard all about his plans, seemingly happy as ever, to go boating with friends. Two days later her husband told her, “There are three Marines in the living room.”
Villone had come to take the pledge, too, leading his service dog, Ice, named for a friend who died. They all gathered around the sword as the wind whipped at the flag and the water of the memorial. Some people strode forward; some rolled up in wheelchairs. There were broad military shoulders and prosthetic limbs, white hair and afros and tattoos and silk scarves, people from all across the country who hadn’t known one another before this weekend. They drew in close, reaching out to the sword, or to someone’s shoulder who was touching the steel.
Miller read the pledge, and they echoed it: “I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family.”
Many struggled for words after the pledge. Some described the sense of a spark, some kind of energy traveling from hand to hand. Some felt at peace. “Just – amazing,” Miller said. “The feeling is deep – just so deep that there are no words. It’s like trying to explain love, the feeling of love.”
Villone thought about his own battle buddy back in Texas – a friend who had reached out to him during some of his darkest times – and resolved not to shut him out again, remembering the worry he had felt about the friends he himself had lost to suicide, when they didn’t respond.
Afterward, a few wiped away tears. Many grabbed someone nearby into a bear hug. They traded phone numbers. A man shook Villone’s hand.
“Remember, we’re all connected,” Villone told him. “If you have any negativity, know we’re here.”
And he called out to some veterans he had just met, “See you soon!”