Motorcycle project rumbles into Pittsburgh to call attention to veteran suicide

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It could have been him, Chris Costello figures.

Medically discharged from the Marines in 2007 after serving two years, he couldn't hold a steady job, struggled in his personal life, lost many of his friends and wrangled with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over benefits payments. Things were heading downhill until he met Mike Bodis, a case manager at the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, a 30-year-old nonprofit on Carson Street in the South Side Flats.

"If it wasn't for the Veterans Leadership Program, I'd be just another veteran statistic of some sort," said Mr. Costello, 31, who lives in Crafton.

Some of his friends did become statistics, joining the thousands of veterans who take their own lives every year.

"They were afraid to ask for the help they needed," Mr. Costello said. "Nobody could really understand. Unless you were there, you wouldn't know. ... A lot of them turned to drugs and alcohol."

Based on records from 21 states, the VA estimated in a report released this year that about 22 veterans a day killed themselves in 2010. That prompted a cross-country motorcycle tour and documentary film effort called "Project 22" that rolled into Pittsburgh on Wednesday to raise awareness of the prevalence of suicide among veterans and to spotlight programs that try to bring struggling ex-service members back from the brink of despair.

In a scene reminiscent of the Vietnam-era movie "Easy Rider," Matt "Doc" King, a 32-year-old former Army combat medic who served in Iraq, and Daniel Egbert, a 27-year-old former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumbled up to the Veterans Leadership Program building with a Pittsburgh police motorcycle escort. They were welcomed by a fire department ladder truck, ex-Steeler and Vietnam combat veteran Rocky Bleier and other local veterans for two days of filming in the area.

Pittsburgh was the second-to-last stop on the trip, which began in California last month and ends this weekend in New York City.

Mr. Egbert, a New York native and film student who has also made a short film on veteran suicide, said the project grew out of an emotional conversation with Mr. King, who is also a former roommate, after they heard about the 22-a-day suicide figure.

"It blew us away," Mr. Egbert said.

Pittsburgh, however, was not on the initial itinerary.

Theo Collins, a Duquesne University law student, president of the university's Student Veterans Association and a former Marine sergeant who served with Mr. Egbert in Afghanistan, found out about the trip and suggested Pittsburgh because of the high concentration of veterans and treatment programs for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.

According to the Veterans Leadership Program, Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest concentration of veterans in the country and Allegheny County is home to the highest number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the state.

"I'm not an expert ... but some of the life-changing experiences that combat veterans go through on a nearly daily basis while they're deployed, those lead to medical conditions," Mr. Collins said. "They come back from incredibly stressful environments, then they're instantly back home in the civilian world where you're expected to put on a happy face and move on."

Mr. Bleier was drafted by the Steelers in 1968, the same year he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to fight in Vietnam, where he was wounded in the legs by rifle fire and grenade shrapnel that rendered him barely able to walk. By 1972, the running back had fought his way back onto the Steelers active roster and went on to win four Super Bowls with the team. In 1976, he and teammate Franco Harris became the second pair of running backs from the same team to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Mr. Bleier, who was scheduled to sit for an interview with the "Project 22" crew, said that thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, service members are surviving wounds that would have killed them in past wars, bringing home both visible and invisible scars.

"We thank them, but we don't go home with them," Mr. Bleier said. "It's not enough to say, 'Thank you.' ... "

He praised the efforts to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress and other problems veterans struggle with, noting that the effects can take months or years to set in.

"All of a sudden, you open the door and step off the cliff," he said.

neigh_city

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. First Published October 9, 2013 8:39 PM


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