By Kirk Alkire
I retired on 1 September 2008 after a 23-year career serving on active duty in the Army. My final assignment was with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Airborne) during its 15-month deployment to Iraq. Our time there was in the middle of the surge, which was some of the fiercest fighting during that conflict.
It was during this deployment that we lost 53 Paratroopers on the battlefield. I never thought the pains associated with the unthinkable losses we experienced while deployed in a combat zone, a world away from the freedoms of home, would follow us into the safety of our beloved communities all across America.
Since my retirement, I have lost eight friends and former members of my unit to suicide. A few were to substance abuse associated with the demons they were fighting, others were self-inflicted gunshots. Regardless of the method, each of them was a fellow battle buddy, husband, father, brother, and even peers of mine. Each was my friend, and each was a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with his experiences in combat.
Recently, I looked into the eyes of a young veteran struggling with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury who was absolutely done. He had tried everything that everyone had told to, only to run into issues or budget cuts that prevented him from getting him what he needed and was so desperately seeking.
A friend within our community told him to come see me.
When I met him, I saw it in his eyes; I was his absolute last resort… and it scared the crap out of me. I knew this was it for him and I had to do something immediately.
He was a stranger, but not really. I was looking at a brother of mine; a veteran that had endured some of the toughest fighting this generation of veterans have seen, surviving tough deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
I started making calls to organizations and most importantly my close friends for help. I quickly started to run into some of the very same issues he said he was having.
“Sorry…” followed by a reason wrapped in red tape.
I then called a long-time friend and Army retiree for his advice. He too was shocked, and immediately understood what this veteran and his family were dealing with could not wait.
It took about 72 hours. We maintained constant contact with the veteran and worked hard behind the scenes. The outcome was positive. Between the two of us, mainly my good friend, we prevented another veteran from potentially taking his own life. Today, he is thriving.
Gold Star Peak was officially named in Washington, DC on 8 February 2018.
From the day it was officially named, we have had a steady number of calls and emails from Gold Star family members, veterans, first responders, and law enforcement officers asking for our help in getting to the summit, to date a total of 375.
Every time we visit the summit of Gold Star Peak we discover something has changed since our last climb; new heartfelt entries in the summit journal, a freshly painted rock, a picture, a coin, or ID tag. Whether it was the parent, spouse, sibling, child, or battle buddy of a fallen hero, each memory placed there is from the heart and packs a ton of meaning for those who leave it at the Peak.
There is a discovery that will stir many emotions for the returning regulars. Live bullets. There is a story behind every single one of them; they represent someone’s successful journey from their dark past, most likely the past of a once struggling veteran or survivor.
The journey often carries an unthinkable amount of sorrow, grief, and guilt where every step towards the summit is filled with an immense amount of emotion, but also lightens the load on their back.
The journey was painful but they still powered through it to the summit. Once on the summit, their minds are clear, they take in the views and all the items left behind by other climbers and realize they are OK. They either un-holster their weapon, remove The Bullet from the chamber, or they just leave a bullet they carried with them behind. Either way, it is the very bullet that could’ve made them part of our nation’s staggering suicide statistics.
Regardless of the reason, I believe the act is truly one of success in that they were at some point struggling and contemplating suicide, but instead, they made the journey to Gold Star Peak, overcame their thoughts, and left their bullet behind.
It is their way of saying, “Not me, I did it, I’m good.”
For now, I hope we continue to find new bullets on the summit.
Not every person is capable of climbing or even likes the outdoors. If you or someone you know is struggling, just know there are plenty of other wonderful resources and people right within your own community that not only care, but also are more than willing to help out. These resources range from support groups like suicide survivor support groups, a Gold Star support group, coffee and breakfast groups, book clubs, running clubs, or training a service dog. Or, just maybe you can be the one to start a new group focused on your passion.
If you or someone you know is struggling please do not wait, immediately call: 1-800-274-8255 or simply dial 911.
For more information please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at http://www.sucidepreventionlifeline.org