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Field of flags to raise awareness of veteran suicide

TUXEDO — Chris Kruse is no stranger to the devastating realities of war on the men and women who endure them.

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A retired Army master sergeant who served for 25 years, Kruse served in the Vietnam and Gulf wars. A resident of the Green River area since 2009, he is active in the Green River Community Association, which has supported his work in the Flags for Forgotten Soldiers initiative.
Kruse plans to plant almost 700 flags on a gently sloping field at Tuxedo Park on Saturday as part of the movement that raises awareness about the growing number of veterans who are dying of suicide. The founder of the initiative is Howard Berry, who lost his son Joshua to suicide.
“He’s a Cincinnati native, and I’m a Cincinnati native,” Kruse said. “We became friends through working together in a volunteer group in the area. I know the loss of his son really took a lot out of him.”
Chris Kruse is leading effort to plant 660 flags at Tuxedo Park.Chris Kruse is leading effort to plant 660 flags at Tuxedo Park.Joshua Berry, an Army staff sergeant, was sent to Fort Hood in Texas to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan, Kruse said. In November 2009, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at the base, killing 13 people and wounding 30. Berry was injured while barricading a door with his body to protect unarmed civilians. He also was unarmed.
“It was every soldier’s nightmare — getting shot at and not having any way to defend yourself,” Kruse said. “Without regard for his safety, he did what people like that do.”
A few months later, while still seeking treatment for PTSD, Berry committed suicide.
“That really struck a chord with me because shortly after I returned from Vietnam, about seven months later, my oldest brother, who was a Marine, committed suicide,” Kruse said. “I know what it does to a family. Veterans have learned the hard way that they can’t expect a lot of help from people who have never been there and done that. What we hope to accomplish here is to raise awareness. There are 22 veterans a day and 660 a month that are dying by their own hand. That’s why we’re doing this.”

660 flags at Tuxedo Park

Howard Berry has provided the funds for the 660 flags for the display at Tuxedo Park on June 24 as well as other display sites.
“Many of the displays around the country, he has financed out of his own pocket,” Kruse said. “He’s getting requests from veterans all over the country that want to do something and want to find out how to get flags. He started to recycle some things. He’s made deals with the local cemeteries. They let him pull flags off the graves after they are used because they won’t let them stay up for very long and then they throw them away. He’s cleaning them and paying to send them to other displays. As other displays are taking flags down, he grabs the flags and sends them to other displays. For something like this to be effective, you have to reach a critical mass in the eyes of the population.”
The initiative has only begun about six months ago, Kruse said. While it is still in its early stages, it has created significantly more awareness about veteran suicides in America than when it started.
“In total there have been 15 sites, even if they’re not active currently,” Kruse said. “This will be the second display in North Carolina.”
The display on June 24 will be the first that Kruse has organized.
“It’s going to be 80 feet wide and 60 feet deep,” Kruse said. “It will consist of 30 flags in a row and 22 rows signifying 22 suicides every day for the average of 30 days in a month. We chose this spot because it tilts downward towards the road. Putting the flags in this coming Saturday will be a workday. I’m planning on starting at 9:30 a.m.”
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners granted permission for the display last month and the county Department Parks and Recreation has been supportive. The Green River Community Association plans to serve food to volunteers. Anyone who wants to get involved is welcome to come out to plant flags on June 24.
Kruse urges friends and loved ones of veterans to be sensitive to their mood and to watch for warning signs.
“If you know anybody who’s a returning veteran, and they’re having trouble fitting in, that’s really dangerous, and the best thing you can do is let them know that you’ve got their back,” he said. “Families who have lost someone should come on out and plant a flag. We can’t wait another day; another day 22 more go.”