WASHINGTON, D.C. — A controversial new memorial was unveiled in the nation's capitol Monday, after Congress reallocated $2 billion in funding from veterans benefits and post-traumatic stress counseling to approve "The Armed Forces Suicide Memorial" nearly two years ago.
The monument — a 25 foot high granite table topped with a fifth of Jack Daniels whiskey, an open bottle of pills, and a loaded pistol — was erected in memory of all military personnel who have committed suicide on active duty or under the medical supervision of the Armed Forces.
It will sit immediately adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and features a chronological listing of names, starting with Corporal Thurston Carver. Carver, a Minuteman from Groton, Mass., stood on top of a tree stump in 1776 and used his toe to fire a shot from his five foot long musket into his mouth.
Family members of soldiers to be featured on the memorial were very supportive. Nancy Wilder, mother of 23-year-old Private Horace Wilder, expressed quiet satisfaction with the unveiling.
“Of course my little Horace is a hero, and he deserves to be up on a wall just like all the rest of those people," said Wilder amidst tears. "In high school he saw the movie Universal Soldier. That was the day he told me he wanted to join the Army, deploy to a combat zone at least four times in one enlistment, develop soul-crushing PTSD, and eventually take the hard way out."
Wilder continued, "Unfortunately, once he joined it was hard to make friends. In his letters and twice-weekly phone calls during basic he told me that the drill sergeants were absolute animals, waking him up at 5am for pointless exercises and screaming sessions. He was so miserable."
Wilder’s son took his own life two days before his basic training graduation by jumping from the roof of the post hospital after sneaking away during sick call.
"I'm just so glad our politicians and military leaders were looking out for him and all the other veterans," Wilder said. "Now he’ll be remembered forever."
George Hargrove, a Sergeant Major in the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., was honored to know at least two troops that killed themselves. With 22 veterans committing suicide every day, Hargrove says, "he's hopeful there will be more to come."
“I’m just glad to see the military finally stepping up to recognize these outstanding soldiers," Hargrove told reporters. "I remember one time we had a guy in my platoon shoot himself with his SAW. The guy could never hit anything on the range, so needless to say we were amazed he was able to finally hit what he was aiming at. That’s the kind of perseverance that this monument is all about."
"We had another guy — about eighteen years old — drink some bleach when he found out his high school sweetheart was cheating on him while he was at basic training. I guess he showed her!"
While the move was still being hotly debated in the halls of Congress, support for the memorial came from a wide range of influential personalities, including Gen. (Ret.) Eric Shinseki, who currently heads the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“First, I just want to say that I forgive all the soldiers who killed themselves on my watch for what they did, and are continuing to do to my career," Shinseki said. "And I think it’s great that we’re going to honor our fallen soldiers like this. Combat, accident, or suicide — all deserve the same level of remembrance. Every soldier that heroically takes his own life saves the VA billions in counseling, medical bills, and record jacket destruction costs."
Shinseki told reporters that he hoped the completion of the memorial would honor fallen heroes and further glamorize the act of suicide.
"If just four percent of our military veterans would take their own lives each week we could reduce the average processing time for living veterans’ benefits from 24 months to 23 months," Shinseki said. "It’s a win-win.”
One unresolved issue is the move to place an additional panel on the monument to honor fragged soldiers and officers. If approved, it would feature a hand grenade and a bloody set of Second Lieutenant bars. The National Capital Parks and Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the fragging panel in early FY2020.