WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) Through Veterans Day Monday (Nov. 11), Wichita State University's Student Veterans Organization places flags around the university's campus as part of a suicide awareness campaign.
On a mostly quiet morning, WSU Student Veterans Organization President Levi Schenk and members of the group head out to plant 22 flags. It's been ongoing for the last 16 days.
"We all care," said Schenk, "about veterans and students and military-affiliated individuals."
Schenk served for nine years as a Marine.
Schenk says part of the project's goal was to encourage people to address the topic of suicide, and the group decided to use flags and social media to start the conversation.
"We have to keep pushing forward and keep doing this to raise awareness and starting conversations because it is a very sensitive and touchy subject, and not a lot of people want to talk about it," he said. "The more we do talk about it and kind of normalize it, the better was can be at preventing it and fighting against it."
Wichita State says groups nationwide organized similar campaigns over the past several years, but this is the first year at WSU.
The university says 22 flags represent an estimate of daily suicides involving veterans from Veteran Administration statistics. Schenk says 22 flags planted for 16 days equals 352 flags, representing the year-to-date suicide estimates for active-duty military personnel.
This is an issue Schenk has seen impact people first hand.
"There are specific individuals that go through my mind. I have experienced the loss of fellow military members and personal friends that have resorted to suicide, so there’s always that component, especially for a lot of us who’ve served. We all have experienced that. We all have something we think of with every single flag," said Schenk.
Attached to each flag is a Veterans Crisis Hotline card (1-800-273-822) along with information on the signs that could indicate suicide.
"It’s a very difficult thing to process. It’s hard to cope with, and it’s not a quick process to grieve or get over," he said.
"When you put in the factor that veterans are very stubborn people," he continued. "They don’t want to seek help because I got it, I can take care of myself. We used to a life of service and serving, not self-help. It’s really hard to reach out."
Wichita State says the Student Veterans Organization encourages participants to take the card and take a selfie with it to spread awareness about the campaign on social media, using the #SVO22 hashtag.
"Each selfie with a valid card enters the person into a drawing for an Amazon gift card," Wichita State says.
That drawing happens on Tuesday (Nov. 12).
As part of the campaign on Friday afternoon, Wichita State hosted the Suicide Awareness Summit outside Grace Wilkie Hall. The summit featured keynote speaker, Air Force Master Sergeant Alex Boyd, and others working to raise awareness about suicide, which Schenk says is "a growing epidemic for our culture."
"We're using this as a platform for people to speak out on their personal experiences," he says. "It's something that affects everyone."
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. That hotline is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
This is the first year the Student Veterans Organization has organized this effort and plan to make it a yearly campaign.