A movement for combatting staggering suicide rates among veterans and providing psychological and other help to service people has been founded in Riverdale, organized by two local veterans, different in many aspects but united by their military past and a shared goal.
One of the co-founders is Melanie Scott, an African-American woman, a veteran of the U.S. military and a member of Christ Church of Riverdale. The other is Steven Rosenfeld, a Jewish man, a veteran of the Israeli army and of the 1982 Lebanon war, and a member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Open Orthodox synagogue.
They met shortly before Thanksgiving last year, when religious leaders and local activists held a donation drive to collect turkeys, canned foods, toiletries and other supplies for the homeless families who were staying at the Van Cortlandt Motel. Activists of various faiths gathered at Christ Church to pack donated items and bring them to the motel. Scott and Rosenfeld were among the group, and they chatted as they worked.
“We were breaking down the boxes, and something he said—I don’t even remember what—but something he said made me think he was a vet,” Scott recalled during a conversation with The Press last week. “And I said, ‘Are you a veteran?’ And we sort of dovetailed from there.”
“I think it was fate, that we worked together that day,” she added.
It seems so, judging by the duo’s accounts. “One day, I walked into this church, and I met Melanie,” Rosenfeld said. “And I was in the army, and she was in the army, and we immediately connected.”
“We just started talking, and within five minutes we said, we gotta help veterans,” Rosenfeld said. “We gotta take all these faith-based institutions and get them involved because they have all these resources. And they’re always talking about how much we love veterans, and in the synagogues they pray for veterans every Sabbath—but what else are we doing? What are we doing on the day to day basis?”
Fast-forward a few months, and the new group held its first meeting at Christ Church in the evening of March 9. Beside Rosenfeld and Scott, the gathering included veterans, experts from the Department of Veteran Affairs and James J. Peters VA Medical Center, the Rev. Andrew Butler of Christ Church and Rabbi Ari Hart of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
The topic that evening was suicide among veterans.
“We chose suicide because that’s a hot topic and it’s an important topic,” and also because suicide is “the end of the road,” Rosenfeld said. “Let’s start over there and then we’ll move back. If we can stop them from killing themselves, maybe we can then help them get jobs and get them into therapy and work on all the other problems.”
Fewer than 9 percent of adults in the United States are veterans, but veterans account for 18 percent of deaths by suicide among American adults, according to data from the Veteran Affairs Department. The department examined more than 55 million of veteran records from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation and published the results last summer. In the final year covered by the study, 2014, about 20 veterans died each day from suicide. Between 2001 and 2014, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while veteran suicides increased 32 percent during the same time period, according to Veteran Affairs Department.
Hypotheses to explain the high rate of suicide abound, but “no hard and fast data” seems available to provide a definitive answer, Evan Podolak, a doctor of psychology and suicide prevention coordinator from James J. Peters VA Medical Center, told the meeting at Christ Church.
Veterans are often “cavalier” about whatever is troubling them, Delfin Martinez III, a veteran, told the meeting. Serving as a machine gunner in the Marines made Martinez feel he was “awesome,” he said, and then “to come back to the civilian world and [lose] that awesomeness—that sucks.”
Others may have initially been willing to talk about their hurt, but found nobody willing to listen and to understand.
After Rosenfeld was discharged, he came to New York—“and there was nothing. There was no support,” he said. “I came off the battlefields of southern Lebanon, walked into a university classroom, and was surrounded by 18- and 19-year-old kids who could not relate to my experience.”
“I had nobody to even talk to. If I mentioned it to one person, they just looked as me like I was odd. And eventually I never even spoke about it anymore, after a few years. And decades went by,” Rosenfeld said.
He did, however, start a group for Lebanon war veterans about 35 years ago, Rosenfeld said. The group would meet every year on June 6—the day the 1982 Lebanon war began. He estimates there are about 10-20 veterans of that war living in Riverdale, and five times as many in all of New York City.
“And none of them talk about their issues, none of them talk about their PTSD, none of them talk about what’s affected them, how it’s affected them,” he said. “But as the conversation goes on... the toughest, and the most macho, and the coolest and the most normal-looking—after a couple of hours of hearing other people talk—they finally open up and they tell their story. And every single person that I’ve met so far has a story.”
Rosenfeld and Scott have far-reaching plans for their project, although apparently no tightly structured plan or schedule. The immediate goal is to hold regular meetings, perhaps once a month or once a quarter, and to involve the local community and its religious institutions.
“The whole idea that Melanie and I had was to bring the faith-based organizations and all their resources here, and to define where the need is, and to bring these guys in,” Rosenfeld said.
The group’s “informational sessions,” Scott said, could then “grow legs into the community.”
“I hope to have regular things like this,” she said. “Maybe a little less clinical, a little bit more informational... But I also want [to address] the issues that are important to me, and I think Steven as well—it’s this business of veteran suicide, and also homelessness, which is very tied in.”
Some day, “we want people to be able to knock on the door of any church, any mosque, any synagogue in this country and say, ‘Hey, I’m a veteran, and I’m hurting. What can you do for me?’” Rosenfeld said.
That sounds like an ambitious project, but how has it been going so far?
“I’m happy with where it’s going,” Scott said.