While suicide rates among Americans have been on the rise for the last 20 years, reports have found that the suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than the general population. 

The U.S. Veterans Affairs 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report also found that the rate of suicide among veterans who received recent VA care decreased by 2.4%. In addition to VA care, there are local programs for veterans facing thoughts of suicide, including Mission 22, a nonprofit organization for which an Oxford church is hosting a fundraiser at 10:30 a.m. Sunday with a Motorcycle Poker Run and Bike Blessing. 

In addition to organizing events and building memorials to build awareness, Mission 22 provides treatment programs to veterans for issues including post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. They also provide programs for families of veterans, including the Mission Troopers Equine Program, the group’s first activity for the children of veterans.

“They are veterans helping veterans to return to society rather than isolating which could lead to tragic decisions,” said Hal Hunt, pastor at Riverside Community Church where the fundraiser is being held. 

The church will also host Operations Paws on the Ground, an organization that hires veterans to train rescue dogs, which in turn, will be matched with veterans needing the support. 

John Jakab, a state ambassador for Mission 22, said he got involved with Mission 22 four years ago when he attended a hike for the organization. But it was before that, at an obstacle course event, that he saw people who were carrying a pair of boots with the names of veterans lost to suicide on them. The boots are a symbolic way to memorialize those lost.

“They actually had the veteran’s mother there too, so they were honoring her loss,” Jakab said. 

Jakab, who has family members that have served in the Armed Forces, has four pairs of boots he brings to events now; one has names of Connecticut veterans lost to suicide. Jakab has a Facebook page, Memorial Boots, which has pictures of the various memorial events he attends.  

When he carries a pair of the boots at an event, it is to symbolize “carrying the weight of the fallen.” Jakab said.

“I am just a huge supporter and have been trying to raise awareness,” Jakab said. “There is not enough awareness.” 

In addition to its various treatment programs, Mission 22 has an ambassador program for volunteers to get involved through social media or local events

Riverside Community Church has held fundraisers benefiting veterans since 2014, but Sunday’s event is the third that its members are holding for Mission 22. This year, the family of a soldier who lost his life to suicide will be honored. Vincent P. Yacovelli, 63, died in 2018. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Yacovelli left behind four children. 

Jakab said the Patriot Guard Riders will provide American flags for attendees to hold as the motorcycles leave the church for the poker ride, while Honor and Remember, a nonprofit group that honors fallen veterans and their families with its own flags, will provide the flag the Yacovelli family will receive. 

Registration for the event on Sunday starts at 9:30 a.m. Donation is $25 for riders, $10 for passengers and $10 for walk-ins. For more information, visit the church’s Facebook page.