Legionnaires help raise suicide awareness with campus walk

More so than most, Daryll Mauder can speak firsthand on the dark emotions that can lead one to contemplate suicide.

“I’ve actually had four attempts from the span of 2010 to 2019. Recently I was just in the hospital — not as an attempt, but had some really dark thoughts, and I just needed to get myself checked in to get a mental break,” said Mauder, the commander of American Legion University of Akron Post 808 in Ohio.

“I struggle daily, and that’s my whole goal, because I’m in these boots, I’ve walked these boots and I can maybe help a fellow brother or sister out or even a civilian at this point, if they’re struggling, I just want to be there to help because I’ve been right there with them.”

Mauder spoke about his struggles before the Out of the Darkness Campus Walk on April 28 at the University of Akron, one of some 150 such suicide awareness walks taking place this spring across the country. This was the fifth year for the event at Akron, where the Legion post, Student Veterans of America (SVA) and the university’s Veterans and Military Service Center are co-chairs of the walk.

“As a community advocate, our main goal is to reach out and build bridges, not barriers,” said Past Post Commander Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado. “So when it comes to suicide awareness and prevention, and changing the language, this was a no-brainer. Especially having a post commander who is actively working through the struggles.”

Sunday’s walk took place a day before a veteran died by suicide outside Cleveland VA Medical Center, the latest in a series of such incidents.

“I think one of the things we can do as individual posts is get into our CBOCs and our hospitals and get a presence known, show them, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. You need something, we’re here for you. You want my phone number, you want my email?’ Whatever we can do to help in our local communities, our local areas, that’s what we need to do,” Mauder said.

The mile walk around the University of Akron campus included students, student veterans and others hoping to raise awareness. In the opening ceremony, Miss Ohio 2018 Matti-Lynn Chrisman talked about choosing mental health awareness and suicide prevention as her cause as Miss Ohio, noting that “depression has controlled 90 percent of my life.”

Mauder pointed to the 20 sets of combat boots lined up nearby to represent the 20 veterans a day who die by suicide, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We need to get that number down further, we need to bring that down to zero,” Mauder said.

Maurice Pelkey, veteran engagement director for Team RWB, attended the walk because he’s known people who have tried to kill themselves.

“I know as a veteran that it is an epidemic in our society. We need to let other veterans know that we are there for them, and there’s always a reason to fight,” Pelkey said.

Post 808 and SVA member Timothy Jones echoed that sentiment, saying, “We all struggle with things differently, and it’s good to know that there’s always a brother or sister you can talk to, and committing that act does not have to be the answer that resolves your situation. There’s always other ways to resolve it.”

SVA chapter president Nick Peterson said the event “lets people know that they’re not alone, especially veterans. I know when I got out (of the service on a medical discharge), I was skeptical about reaching out, I didn’t think anything was wrong. It took a hospitalization before I was like, ‘Okay, I need to do this.’”

Army veteran Jonathan Davis agreed. The vice president of the university’s rocket design team, the Akronauts, Davis walked with fellow team members Matthew Stanko, the team’s president, and Matthew Reppa, the team’s chief engineer.

“For me, when I got out of the Army in February 2018, I was going crazy,” Davis said. “Didn’t know what it was I was supposed to be doing, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. So I went to the VA and sat down with a therapist and talked through it, and the issue was that I had lived the past six years of my life with a mission. And now there was no mission. So the flowerbed was my mission. Painting the living room was my mission. Housework became the mission, and that wasn’t fulfilling. And so it took a lot of introspection to really think about and not be in that dark place that I was in my mind, because it just felt like everything was pointless.

“And that can spiral out of control quickly. It came to kind of defining purpose and accepting responsibility and trying to give back to the community, getting involved in rocketry, coming here to the University of Akron to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering so I can be involved in rocketry, kind of rekindle that flame of purpose in my life. So I want to reach out and help other people who are in similar situations, other veterans that need that and show them there are resources, there are things you can be doing, you don’t have to be in that dark space. There are other missions,” Davis said.

The walk raised $11,885 and included 130 participants.