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Remembering our Heroes

On a recent, warm, sunny afternoon I visited the exquisitely manicured landscape of the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park’s Veterans Memorial Gardens that is home to many monuments recognizing wars and our veterans. I was especially interested in visiting the park’s newest installment, The Battle Within Memorial, which was unveiled this year on Memorial Day to honor our veteran heroes who have taken their own lives due to PTSD. The monument is also meant to be a place of hope and gratitude for the thousands of families and caregivers who struggle each day to help be a lifeline to the current sufferers, especially among our veterans.

The monument. Photo courtesy of the Naval & Military Park

The Battle Within Memorial is home on a peaceful, tree-covered hill adjacent to the Naval & Military Park’s fleet of the USS Little Rock, USS The Sullivans and the USS Croaker submarine standing tall in the Buffalo River. The memorial is an poignant yet simple design of a soldier carrying the image of two of his brothers in combat. These life size silhouette reliefs are cut from an 8,000 pound, 5-foot x 8-foot sheet of two-inch thick steel. The stainless-steel monument was designed to produce a rust color tone naturally though oxidation, perhaps symbolic that support for Veteran mental health requires constant care. The inscription below boldly reads:

“A tribute to those we will always carry, and to those we can no longer hold.”

“This new monument has created compassion, understanding, and awareness to the plight of Veterans with PTSD. It has attracted a steady stream of visitors since its unveiling on Memorial Day – some to simply satisfy their curiosity where others have come to reflect and pray. It is a soulful and compelling addition to the Naval Park’s Veterans Memorial Gardens,” explained Paul J. Marzello Sr., President & CEO of the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park.

The bench at the monument. Photo by Mike Billoni

More than a month after its elaborate and formal dedication on Memorial Day morning, it was extremely heartwarming to see vases of fresh flowers leaning against its base and photos of individuals who probably were victims of suicide. To the left of the monument is a park bench with a simple message on it: “Let’s Talk.” There were visitors from out of town who stood in quiet meditation staring at the monument. In a brief conversation afterwards, they spoke of a family member who had taken his life after returning from serving in the United States Army during the battles in Afghanistan.

Dr. Mark Donnelly, Ph.D. doing one of his many television and media interviews. Photo courtesy of the Masonic Lodge, No. 699 OM

Walking slowly along the river I could only think back to Sunday, April 21, 2018 when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Masonic Lodge No. 699 OM annual awards breakfast. During the meal, Mason Dr. Mark Donnelly, Ph.D., knowing I was on the board of directors of the Naval & Military Park, told me of his and the local Masons’ organizations’ vision. Ever since one of their Masonic Brothers took his life while battling depression and post-traumatic stress after three deployments in Afghanistan, Mark was committed to do something about that tragic death by helping bring attention to this serious issue affecting not only our veterans, but everyday citizens as we have seen in recent suicides in the Buffalo area.

Mark said the monument was their way of trying to make sense from the senseless and their Masonic way of searching for more hope and light. He said the monument would be up by Memorial Day, 2019, a mere 13 months away. I saw eyes roll around the table as I gave him the contacts at the park he needed to call to start the process.

The Grand Line Processions of the Masons – photo courtesy of the Masonic Lodge, No. 699 OM

Those who doubted, do not know Dr. Mark Donnelly, Ph.D. very well. He not only was co-founder of The Battle Within Foundation, but through his connections in the community, he had it constructed within budget and in plenty of time for the largest monument unveiling ceremony in the history of the Naval & Military Park. It is easy to say Dr. Donnelly and his Brothers of the Erie Masonic District, led by the Harmonie Lodge, No. 699 O.M. will own Memorial Day at the park for years to come.

Casimiro Rodriguez Sr. stands at Hispanic American Veterans monuments staring at a stone dedicated to his brother, Gabriel. Photo by Mike Billoni

The unveiling event on Memorial Day actually began on the fantail of the USS Little Rock with a military style service honoring all 7,300 veterans who took their own lives last year due to depression and PTSD.   There were color guards from the Masons and the United States Navy Sea Cadets The Sullivans Division, drill teams and a 13-fold flag ceremony before Casimiro D. Rodriguez Sr., president and founder of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York Inc. delivered a heart-felt keynote address about the reality of losing a family member to suicide. His older brother, Gabriel, took his life at 33, 12 years after returning from fighting in Vietnam as not the same person who left nearly two years earlier.

“In 1968 Gabe arrived in Vietnam where he served with the 25th Infantry Regiment Division and his assignment was ammunition man in the battlefield. The beliefs he and many took to Vietnam were basic—Honesty, Duty, Honor and Love for his country. He believed in his service in Vietnam and he witnessed suffering, dying and the anguish,” Rodriguez related in a hushed voice. “He told my older brothers, Primo and Benny that he was handling large barrels of chemicals labeled Agent Orange (a chemical the U.S. Government would use to spray the foliage so the enemy had no place to hide. This chemical would kill off anything it came in contact with, leaving the ground completely bare.)

“Upon his return to Buffalo, Gabriel, at 21, was unable to forget this experience. His mental confusion grew gradually, like countless other Vietnam Veterans. He soon felt the scorn of his fellow citizens. He had left the battlefields of Vietnam only to face an even greater enemy. The doctors called it anxiety neurosis, which caused pseudo seizures, depressive neurosis and delayed stress syndrome. Gabriel was fighting his final battle, with no ammunition,” he continued as tears welled in his eyes.

“To this day, my family and I try to grasp what could have been going through his mind as Gabriel battled within searching for an answer to an affliction that no one knew and only he could explain. Even the doctors back then could not explain it.”

Rodriguez said they found a book, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders of the Vietnam Veteran, among his belongings. Gabriel had several paragraphs in one chapter underlined as it seemed to define what he was going through at that time. When Gabe took his life on a cloudy Friday afternoon on November 20, 1981, they found a Bible opened to the Book of Isaiah that highlights “a coming savior, where the description lies of a suffering servant and ends with restoration when all things will be made brand new.”

In a small way, Rodriguez was able to pay tribute to his brother when he led the effort to construct an impressive monument recognizing the WNY Hispanic American Veterans from all wars. On the ellipse of the monument is etched two inscriptions, one paying tribute to the 65th Infantry Regiment—“The Borinqueneers,” the only segregated Puerto Rican regiment in the U.S. Army and on the other side lays tribute to a humble man–a man that at one time at the age of 20, enlisted in the US Army to fight a war that was never won, a man who fought for a cause, that to this day, we still question and it was a cause that left scars upon many families and veterans alike, some that never can be seen with the naked eye. “That gentleman is my brother,” Rodriguez said. “He may not be here today but I see him in every serviceman and woman in uniform.”

He received a long standing ovation upon completing his address. The story about Gabriel was featured on the front page of The Buffalo News that morning by columnist Sean Kirst, who began his lengthy narrative this way: “A half-century is enough to extinguish many memories, images blurring into colors and echoes, but Casimiro Rodriguez can still reach into childhood and find his big brother.”

Casimiro Rodriguez delivering the keynote address – photo courtesy of the Masonic Lodge, No. 699 OM

There was a long procession of Freemasons, in full regalia, departing the ships to the site of the new Battle Within Monument where a moving and emotional Masonic Cornerstone Laying Ritual was held, speakers were heard and then, the unveiling of The Battle Within Monument.

During his remarks, Dr. Donnelly spoke of how each visitor could find their own personal meaning while gazing through the empty space in the center of the memorial before asking the audience for their help. “We need to start a conversation,” he explained. “Only through a willingness to open up and discuss what we are facing in our communities can healing start to take hold.” He referenced the bench with the simple marker, “Let’s Talk” as a great place to start.

Richard Kessler, Deputy Grand Master, closed the ceremony with a mix of pride in his fellow Mason Brothers and the Grand Lodge of New York for making this monument a reality and the personal pain of the loss of his childhood friend to PTSD after Vietnam.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, more than 40 years ago, we have lost more Americans heroes due to suicide than all foreign wars and conflicts in that time period combined. Despite the best efforts of families, friends, the VA and scores of highly dedicated veterans-based organizations, approximately 20 veterans are lost each day to complications from wounds and injuries we cannot see. That is 7,300 brave men and women each year who volunteered to protect and defend our country.

Something must be done to end this trend. Do not be quiet about mental illness. Just tell someone. There are people ready and willing to listen and offer hope.

Here are some resources to help: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), then press 1 for the VA Crisis Hotline or you may contact the following: Regionwide: Call 211 for mental health, suicide prevention and other public health services; Erie County: Crisis Services of Buffalo and Erie County operates a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline at 834-3131 and an addiction hotline at 831-7007; Niagara County: Crisis phones in Niagara Falls State Park are designed to help prevent suicides at the American and Horseshoe falls; the county Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services has a 24-hour confidential hotline at 285-3515; Chautauqua County: Crisis hotline is 800-724-0461 and the Erie County Medical Center offers regional emergency, inpatient and outpatient mental health care, including a new Help Center open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays on the Grider Street campus for those wishing to talk about a pressing mental health concern outside the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. Call outpatient treatment services (adult, child and family) at 898-3255; inpatient treatment services at 898-3169; and the Emergency Department at 898-3465.

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

A journalist for nearly 50 years who was an award-winning sports reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express until it closed in 1982. He was the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and a member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and is managing partner of Billoni Associates. He authored and managed “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp; published 'All In," the memoir of businessman Ronald Zoeller and is currently publishing The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball, the most comprehensive history of professional baseball in the city. It will be released April 17, 2020.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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