A healing space for mothers who lost a veteran child to suicide
Sarah Johnson holds photos of her son U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Johnson, who died by suicide. Sarah stands by her son’s name on the RV, Hope Mobile, operated by Michele Ladd who found Mothers of Veteran Suicide. (Photo provided by Michele Ladd)

A healing space for mothers who lost a veteran child to suicide

As a mother to two veteran sons, Michele Ladd understands the invisible wounds of war and the often-difficult transition from military to civilian life. This understanding and passion to help other veterans heal inspired her to start traveling the country six years ago in an RV that Ladd named Hero Mobile. Her travels have taken her to more than 50 American Legion posts among other veteran service organizations, and over 175,000 miles alongside her husband Randy, a Navy veteran and Legionnaire. Veterans have shared their stories with Ladd while she helped provide resource assistance.

She has heard stories from veterans about trauma, post-traumatic stress, divorce and suicide. And she has met mothers who lost their military son or daughter to suicide. The stories these grieving mothers shared with Ladd inspired her to provide healing and help to them as well. While she placed the names of their children on the back of the RV on angel wings and a suicide prevention ribbon decal, she wanted to do more to show her dedication to these mothers.  

Ladd started a faith-based private Facebook group called Mothers of Veteran Suicide that offers support and a safe space to grieve. Today, there are 160 mothers in the group.

“I believe there's no greater pain than a mother who has lost a child, but a mother who has lost a child who served our country because we cannot imagine sending our children off to war,” said Ladd, whose one son served in Iraq. “He's got a great job, but he struggles and there's a reason why I do what I do.”

Ladd is now touring the country in a new RV – Hope Mobile – that features butterflies with the names of veterans lost to suicide. She has also started retreats to bring moms from the Facebook group together, with a recent one held at American Legion Post 69 in Avon Park, Fla. For more information about Mothers of Veteran Suicide Facebook page, retreats, programs and ways to provide support, email michele@mothersofveteransuicide.org or visit mothersofveteransuicide.org/

The American Legion spoke with Ladd about how Mothers of Veteran Suicide started, how the Facebook group provides healing, the retreats being held and how mothers can get involved.

The American Legion: Who or what inspired you to start Mothers of Veteran Suicide?

Ladd: (While traveling), I was introduced to a mother who lost her (military) son to suicide eight months prior. I reached out to her, and she said “It’s too soon. I'd love to talk with you, but I just can't right now. I can't come and meet you in person.” I said that's fine. We live right on the border of Georgia and Florida and come to find out, she lives in the mountains of Georgia. So I called her one day and said, honey, anytime you want to come, if you want to just come and visit me, I'll sit with you. I'll talk with you. I'll let you cry. She called me up and she said my sons one angelversary, that’s what we call it, is coming up. There's no one else that I would rather be with. Can I come? And she drove nine hours (to visit Ladd). I'm going to cry just talking about it. She drove nine hours and she wanted to sleep in my hero mobile. She wanted to sleep in it because she said this is where it all happens. This is where you're trying to save veterans. That next morning was her son's one year, and I sat with her for five hours on my couch. And she just cried and cried. It was at that time I said, I need to start something for these mamas.

So I started a Facebook group, and I called it Mothers of Veteran Suicide. Before I knew it, I just had mother after mother after mother joining the group, and it's a faith-based group so I just kept trying to find prayers to put in there and I could see the moms were really starting to bond and talk to each other. Now my passion has become so deep for these moms.

Q: What do you post in this Facebook group?

A: I'm in this group every day, all day, commenting, talking to them, trying to get them help. The first thing they receive from me is a prayer blanket with their child’s name on it. I want them to be wrapped in comfort. They trust me. They see what I post in the group; it's nothing but love.

Every day I look for something. If it's a something silly or something funny, or a prayer for comfort. It's about the moms bonding with each other. They feel safe in this group that they can share their grief, and so it's a bonding experience.

I don't counsel. I don't give advice. I'm not a counselor. But I try to encourage them to get counseling and I try to give them the resources. I'll look for counseling for them. I always, always refer TAPS and GriefShare (a support program) that many of the moms have gone through. 

It’s a safe place that they can trust to share their grief that they can't share with family members and loved ones. They tell me, your group has saved my life. I hear it all the time, “I can't share this with my husband anymore. I can't share this with my daughter because my daughter's grieving and my daughter is suicidal. I can't tell them how much I'm grieving because I'm worried about them. So in this group, I can share my pain.”

You know, every mother that comes on board says to me, Michele, I'm so sorry for your loss. They assume that I started this because I lost a child. I say to them, I haven’t lost a child, I've met so many moms and I just want to do anything I can to comfort you because I can't even imagine how you feel. Because I haven't lost my son. I pray every day that that my son can just keep moving forward.

Q: What are things mothers say once they find this Facebook group?

A: I asked the mothers to share what the group has done for them. (The following are a few the many positive thoughts about the group.)

“This club we unfortunately belong to creates a very special bond. We can vent, cry, share, ask questions... all in a Christian loving compassionate atmosphere. WE GET EACH OTHERS PAIN. We uplift, pray for each other, share good and bad. I don't feel guilty for sharing with our group no matter the topic, whereas I hold back so often with others because it makes people uncomfortable. Michele Ladd, thank you for providing us a safe place to grieve openly. I often refer to you as our Fairy Godmother because of your genuine care and protection of us. And, because you are a beautiful shining beacon of love and light. This is our sisterhood.”

“I’m thankful for it, for the times I’m hurting that I need extra love and prayers. For the times I just want to share a story about my child and others will join in or just know it’s a day I need someone to listen. I’m thankful for you Michel Ladd, it’s like God knew we all needed this and your willing to do the heavy lifting for us. I’m thankful for how strong I have become in helping others that we never knew we could be again but by being there for each other we have really grown. Love you!”

“This group has been a lifeline for me. At my lowest I could reach out and find the love and support I needed. I have found this group to be a second family I have gained so many sisters.”

Q: You are bringing many of these mothers together with retreats. How did the retreats begin?

A: About a year ago I had maybe 70 moms in the group, and I said, hey, moms, anybody want to come to my house. I live about 40 minutes from Fernandina Beach (in Florida), and I can take you to the beach. Eight moms said they wanted to come. (Thanks to a generous donation), I had to get an airbnb because I couldn't fit them all in our house. We had this great experience with the moms.

Then my husband and I took a six-week tour, and we went to visit about 20 mothers around the country and their families. We're meeting the fathers. We're meeting the wives. We're meeting spouses. We're meeting the babies. One of our mamas, her name is Tammy. She had twin Army veteran boys Brandon and Bradley, and she's one of my first moms and Brandon and Bradley took their lives two months apart. And then her daughter took her life. I went to visit Tammy. I sat in her home. I held her hand. She loves me. I love her.

This year I had 17 mothers. I had to get a hotel room, and we took them to the beach. The biggest thing is for the mothers to meet each other because sadly, there's 40,000 organizations out there trying to help veterans … there's nobody helping the mamas. We’re a small grassroots nonprofit, but there's no group like my group that it's only mothers whose military son or daughter died by suicide.

Q: What happened at the retreat hosted by American Legion Post 69 ?

A: (Post 69 Commander) Larry Roberts has adopted me, and the post and the (Legion) Riders. I invited four local mothers and their families to come to the post. The post was in tears meeting the moms. Some of the moms got to ride motorcycles, the children (of the fallen veterans) received the most adorable stuffed animals with their names on it, and a dog tag with their daddy’s name on it. Pastor Pete offered grief counseling and prayed over every family; they got so much love. I was overwhelmed with the love that this organization gave these mommas and their families. It was so amazingly touching.

I had the mothers send me a photo of them with their child. I put it in an 8x10 frame, and we presented them to the moms. There was not a dry eye in the house. I just wanted the community there to feel what I feel when they see a mother who has lost not only a child, but a child who has served our country.

Larry said to me, you know, you're like the epitome of Be the One (The American Legion’s veteran suicide prevention initiative). I was like, really? I don't know that. I just love on our veterans, and I want them to stay here with us. And then in the in all my travels, I meet these moms and I'm a mom. We're helping our veterans through the moms helping the veterans.

Q: One of the programs featured on Mothers of Veteran Suicide website is MOVS4VETS. What is this program?

A: If we come across a veteran that is struggling, we have moms that want to love on a veteran to let them know that they're not alone, so they'll give them a call and say, “hey, how are you?” Or send them a little care package, write them a letter or send them a text that says, “I’m thinking about how. How’s your day going?” Or send them a little prayer if they know they're struggling a little bit.

And I ask the mothers what they know of their child's last six months because I try to get an education. So if I have a call from a veteran or a military young man or woman, I can help them and send them to the right resources.  

Q: What message do you want mothers who lost their veteran child to suicide know?

A: I think just if you are a mother of a veteran suicide to go to the Facebook group (http://Facebook.com/groups/mothersofveteransuicide) and request to join the group. I get request every day to join the group, but I ask very specific questions before they can join to make sure they’re a mother who has lost their veteran child to suicide. Our mission is to provide hope and healing to the mothers, and they will receive that in our group. It’s about the moms bonding with each other. (And visit http://mothersofveteransuicide.org for resources, programs, ways to help and more.)  

There's a mom that lives outside of Orlando. She just came up on her one year with her son's death and she just wanted to go to the beach. I told her, I'm going to come pick you up and I'm going to take you to the beach. It will make that moms whole year for me to do that for her. And that's what I'm going to do for our mothers.