Events such as Monday’s Veterans Day celebration at Lawrence Park show soldiers coming home from war overseas that Americans care, which is particularly important given the ever increasing suicide rates among soldiers returning from war, Marc Distefano said during the event.
Distefano, 41, of Morgan City, was the guest speaker at the event. He returned in 2005 from Iraq after serving a 16-month stint there with the Army.
The event was hosted by the City of Morgan City and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4222.
The statistics for men and women coming home from war today are grim, Distefano said. According to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs study, about 22 veterans committed suicide per day in 2010.
Distefano said the average age among veterans committing suicide is 25 years old with multiple deployments. The suicide rates are going up each year with about a 15 percent increase since 2012, he said.
Part of the reason may be due to the fact that many soldiers have been deployed five, six, or even seven times during the “War on Terror,” he said.
“The good news is we as a community have many veterans with a story,” he said. Distefano mentioned World War II veteran Jimmy Manuel, 94, of Morgan City, who was featured in an article several months ago, and Distefano hopes the community gets to hear the stories of all veterans living in the area.
The sunny day in Lawrence Park was the perfect setting for Monday’s Veterans Day celebration, he said. When Distefano was deployed in Iraq, he thought about home and Monday’s scene in the park is what he pictured while he was in Iraq.
One veteran’s story sticks out in Distefano’s mind. When he returned from Iraq in 2005, he was living in a small town and always recognized one man who always had khaki shorts and no shirt. The man frequently worked in his yard, was hunched over, and looked like he was in pain.
“One day I made a point to go introduce myself to try to convince him to cut his grass,” Distefano said. He developed a relationship with the man, and one day Distefano went into the man’s garage. Distefano saw a large, tattered Japanese flag with brown stains he thought were blood stains hanging on a wall in the garage.
Reluctantly, the man, “Mr. George,” told Distefano his story. Mr. George was an infantryman in the Marine Corps. While fighting in hand to hand combat against the Japanese in World War II, he was pushed off a small cliff landing on his back. He passed out and survived, but most of his comrades were “bayoneted” and killed, Distefano said.
“He had quite a few stories, and I look back on it, and it wasn’t anything that I did. But I always thought that I could have easily walked past him and never known his story. It’s a nation’s treasure. He certainly was, and we have many of these same type of individuals here today,” Distefano said to a crowd of about 50 people.
There are at least 40 soldiers who died in the line of duty in the community and “paid the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. Morgan City resident Terry Mayon has been doing research for about six years to tell the story of those soldiers and their families’ stories, including pictures, biographies, and interesting facts about their service.
Plans are in the works for a Fallen Warriors Memorial in Morgan City that tells a different story than other memorials. The memorial is not meant to take anything away from any other memorials in the parish, he said.
“This is going to be completely for the families who served and for the City of Morgan City and the greater area so we can have an enduring memorial that’s a testimony to freedom and local sacrifice,” Distefano said.
The intention is to have the monument completed by Veterans Day 2014, he said. Officials are awaiting formal approval from the city to construct the monument in Cypress Park in Morgan City.
Completion of the project depends on getting the donations needed to start the bronze statues which take about five months from start to finish. The memorial wall will take about two months to complete, he said.
“We need to have a substantial amount of the $150,000 that is budgeted by the spring in order to achieve that goal. Otherwise, we will have to either postpone this or change the design completely,” he said. People can purchase bricks honoring any veteran, retired, active-duty, deceased, or living, at $150 per brick. Forms are available at www.fallenwarriorsmemorialmorgancity.com, or people can contact Mayon at 985-518-0662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also at Monday’s celebration, Dee Vicks, St. Mary Parish veterans service officer, spoke about the department’s assistance for veterans and widows of wartime veterans. The Veterans Day Proclamation was presented by Post 4222 Commander Kenneth Lodrigue.
A memorial wreath presentation for POWs and MIAs was followed by taps and 21-gun salute by the East St. Mary Parish Funeral Squad.
Distefano said he will participate in a car show Saturday at Lirette Ford in Morgan City. The show is sponsored by Southeast Louisiana Bayou Mustang Club, which will make a $10,000 donation to the Fallen Warriors Memorial.