For the first time, service members who have died by suicide were officially honored at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention requested the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honor all victims of suicide.
The gesture was enormously fulfilling to several family members of suicide victims watching and taking part in the ceremony.
Charlie Foxtrot: Reasons behind the national spike in service member suicides
“This is the first time on a national level actually recognizing that suicide is a problem, not only in the military, but in our country,” said Ret. Chief Petty Officer Raymond Burke, who lost a son to suicide. Matthew Burke was 21 when he took his own life just six months into his own Navy career 16 years ago.
“He had always wanted to be part of the military. He grew up in a military family. He was a sailor on a ballistic submarine in the world’s greatest Navy. And he told us he wasn’t happy and he didn’t know what to do. And two days later, he was gone,” said Mary Anne Burke, Matthew’s mother. “I feel so bad that he was hurting for so long, and he didn’t trust us enough to let us know. We would’ve gotten him help.”
“When he died, I had so much guilt. Then, as a father, you start questioning yourself, what kind of father allows his son to die by suicide?” asked Burke, of Chantilly, who took part in the ceremony. “It was very emotional laying the wreath.”
“The ceremony not only represented our veterans, which, on average, 22 veterans die a day from suicide, but it’s people coming together. People watching the changing of the guard and realizing this is a daily event,” said Gail Romansky, whose son Shaun, 30, died of suicide in 2010.
“I lost my brother to suicide in ’94. He was 24 years of age. And in the black community, we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about mental health or anything like that. So, I’m here to bring awareness. To get rid of the stigma,” said Dhyana Parker, volunteer chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention National Capital Area Chapter.
“When someone is suffering from mental illness, they are suffering. They are in so much pain. And yet, society doesn’t recognize it,” said Romansky, of Ashburn.
“It’s very important to talk about it. And, if we don’t talk about it, what that does is send a message that people don’t care. Everyone that joins the military, no matter how they die, they gave to this country. They volunteered to give their life to serve this country and all should be honored. We’re taking those steps. I believe today, at Arlington National Cemetery, we took the first step in making that happen,” said Burke.
To learn about the warning signs of suicide and how to get help, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.