Talking about suicide, to some, is taboo and merely not discussed. But one man is cycling across America spreading awareness about suicide rates among veterans that not only grabs your attention, but also asks the question, "What can we as citizens do to help this situation?"
Tom L'Italien, 63, of Phoenix, Ariz., said he refused to sit by and wait for someone to answer this question for him. Cycling from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Boston, Mass., he left June 21 riding a bicycle 2,700 plus miles across the country to bring awareness and prevention for what he calls "the epidemic suicide rate among veterans" and to bring national attention to the Statue of Responsibility.
The nation-wide campaign, called "The Cross Country Responsibility Ride" is supported by the 501c3 organization Team Veterans Foundation Inc., headquartered in Phoenix and L'Italien took on the endeavor for the purpose of fulfilling the promise made to veterans of all eras.
"I want this country to understand from my point of view that the things we enjoy on a daily basis we take for granted. This is a small honor for me to do. It's a privilege," L'Italien said.
So far, L'Italien's journey has taken him through parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas and now Missouri. Tuesday afternoon, he arrived in Mexico, following an overnight stay in Moberly. His next stop is Troy. The final trek of his mission will take him through Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, to raise national awareness of what he calls "an outrageous tragedy affecting all veterans and their families."
From Moberly, L'Italien said the original route plan was to take him to Vandalia, but a last minute decision re-directed him to Mexico, because of the city's exposure to veterans.
"When we laid out our direct route, we were trying to pick cities with some population that we thought would get us the most exposure, so we chose to come to Mexico instead," L'Italien said Tuesday. And to his delight, the community welcomed him with open arms. The A.P. Green Foundation Bed and Breakfast offered him free lodging during his stay.
L'Italien was born one of eight boys, four of whom are veterans. L'Italien said he attempted to join the armed forces in 1969, but was rejected entry due to a weight issue. When people ask him, why he is doing the national ride, his answer is similar to the old adage, "If not now, when?"
One of L'Italien's favorite sayings he loves to share with those he meets along his journey, "I'm not a veteran, but I know where my freedom comes from."
He said the number of veterans that have died due to suicide since 2012 is well over 9,000 – and he carries them on his shoulders as he travels.
Page 2 of 2 - "Now, is when I need to be out here talking to people. This is a cause that can't wait," he said. His hope is to get local legislators to "come out, acknowledge the problem" and the need for change.
"Every 65 minutes, another veteran dies because of their action in duty, and 22 veterans commit suicide every day. I'm bicycling across the country to bring awareness of our responsibility in this great nation to take better care of our veterans," L'Italien said. The husband, father of four adult children and grandfather of three grandsons, said he feels it is his responsibility to assist veterans.
"We need to recognize our veterans as heroes who have paid a big price for our freedom and support them when they come home. There are approximately 300,000 more vets coming home from the war this year, and we need to step up and do something that will make a difference," L'Italien noted.
Two years ago, L'Italien became a member of the Team Veteran Foundation, and now serves on its board of directors. TVF's mission, he said, is to bring awareness to the nation that "The First cost of freedom is supporting our veterans."
During his two-day stay in Mexico, the Massachusetts native talked with the Audrain County Commissioners, which have agreed to write a proclamation, showing their support of TVF's mission, by talking with local politicians about the need to pass two pieces of federal legislation that will better serve veterans and their families with medical assistance, employment, housing and other needs. He was also scheduled to speak with veterans today at the Missouri Veterans' Home about TVF's crusade.
L'Italien is also supporting TVF's goal to raise funds through corporate support to build medical facilities with surrounding houses to support veteran families. Their other goals include setting up a national suicide hotline and erecting a $300 million Statute of Responsibility sculpture in San Diego that can be accomplished through the donations from the general population, or what L'Italien calls "the hands of the angels."
"We're doing all this because the families and loved ones of those lost to suicide continue to suffer," L'Italien said. "We need the nation to step up to help the veteran population. They can't let another Vietnam happen. We cannot let that happen to the veterans coming home."
L'Italien's bike ride across America gives citizens an opportunity to show their support for the "Cross Country Responsibility" cause. Follow his journey on http://teamveteran.org /whereswaldoscousintommy/
To learn more about the Team Veteran Foundation, visit the website www/TeamVeteran.org and http://teamveteran.org/suicideresponsibilityride/ to learn more about the suicide responsibility ride.