PEAKS ISLAND — An average of 22 veterans and one active-duty member of the armed forces die by suicide each day, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One of them was Senior Airman Dustin Hadfield, a Mainer and Afghanistan veteran who took his own life in December 2014, almost two years to the day after he returned from his military service.
In the aftermath, his mother, Linda Lajoie, launched The Silhouette Project, which is designed to visually demonstrate the daily toll that veteran suicide takes.
The project consists of 22 life-size silhouettes that each bear the name and photo of a veteran or active-duty military personnel who died by suicide.
This week, The Silhouette Project comes to the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island. An opening ceremony is planned for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 12, and the exhibit will be on display during regular museum hours through Sunday, July 15.
The museum, which is free and open to the public, is at 45 Seashore Ave. Call 766-3330 for more information.
On the project website, Lajoie said she chose such a visceral representation because “I wanted people to see the statistic up close and personal.”
In an interview she said, “I hope people will start talking about the issue of suicide. It’s not something that only happens to other families. Every mom or loved one I have talked to who has lost someone to suicide never saw it coming.”
“Before losing them almost all of us would have sworn that our, son daughter, husband, wife, friend would never even consider it,” Lajoie said.
Susan Hanley, a member of the Fifth Maine Museum board, said The Silhouette Project dovetails perfectly with the Portland organization’s mission, particularly since the Fifth Maine Regiment Memorial Hall was originally built as a place for Civil War veterans to gather each summer.
“The location and the camaraderie helped (those) veterans to process the emotional wounds of war,” Hanley said, just as The Silhouette Project now “seeks to raise awareness about the emotional wounds that veterans carry with them for years after battle, wounds that sometimes manifest themselves in suicide.”
“We hope people who see the exhibit will become more aware of why veterans are susceptible to suicide (and) what resources are available to veterans with emotional or mental battle wounds,” she said.
“After her son committed suicide, (Lajoie) found that people are extremely uncomfortable speaking about (veteran) suicide, which compounds the problem,” Hanley said. “It makes the topic taboo, and makes veterans who are contemplating suicide afraid to say so.”
That’s why Lajoie “is working to raise awareness about the scope of veteran suicide and to help people have a conversation about it so solutions can be found,” Hanley added.
In describing her experience, Lajoie has said there are many things she didn’t know.
“The signs are not usually easily recognized (and) what I thought I was seeing in Dustin was a 25-year-old kid sowing some wild oats and adjusting to life outside of the military. Sadly that was not the case.”
What she hopes, Lajoie said, is that “by sharing my story, my son’s story, maybe I can keep another mom from having to lose a child. I’m also hoping that people, veterans or not, will reach out for help when they need it.”
There is no shame in asking for help, it doesn’t mean you are weak,” she added, which is why an important feature of The Silhouette Project is highlighting the various resources that are available.
For instance, the Maine Bureau of Veteran Services website features an interactive map to help veterans find organizations in their area that offer all sorts of assistance, from housing to support groups to free camping trips.
In addition, veterans can call a hotline at 800-273-8255, and 24-hour online help is also just a keystroke away at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Overall, Lajoie said, “I am trying to erase the stigma associated with mental health and suicide. No one is comfortable talking about suicide, but we can’t fix a problem we don’t talk about.”
Hanley said as part of the Fifth Maine Museum’s exhibit, two veterans will be on hand Thursday to speak about their own experiences and answer questions about where to find resources to help veterans who may be battling depression.
“With our provenance as a location for veteran respite and reconnection, we are committed to supporting veterans and bringing veteran issues to light,” Hanley said. “The Silhouette Project helps us to focus on that aspect of our mission.”
The museum is “working to expand our connection with veterans (and) hoping to host workshops or meetings that connect veterans with each other and with expert resources.”
In addition to The Silhouette Project, Hanley said this summer the Fifth Maine Museum is also hosting an exhibit about the history of Peaks Island from its heyday as the “Coney Island of Maine” in the early 1900s to its role as an Army base during World War II.
The Fifth Regiment Maine Volunteer Infantry was one of the first Maine regiments to be mustered at the start of the Civil War and it consisted of more than 1,500 men from southern and central Maine.
The Fifth was a fighting regiment and, according to the museum website, it captured more prisoners than the number of men who served and three times the number of battle flags than any other Maine regiment.
It also saw service at many of the Civil War’s fiercest battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania.
The Silhouette Project will be on display at the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island July 12-15.
What is now the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum at 45 Seashore Ave. on Peaks Island was created as a spot for Civil War veterans to gather each summer.