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22 flags for 22 too many

Students recognize the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day

Curtis Hammock and his son, Calvin Gabertan-Hammock, place a flag along one of Tacoma Community College’s walkways. Photo credit: Marguerite Cleveland

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The Student Veterans of Tacoma Community College (SVOTCC) is drawing attention to the staggering statistic that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the United States. The group is hosting an event, 22 Flags for 22 Too Many Veteran Suicides, through May 26 and will place 22 flags along walkways at the college.

Thomas A. Di Giorgio, SVOTCC president, has a passion and empathy for helping veterans. 

"The inspiration for this event was actually designed last year by Eric Ballentine (former TCC AmeriCorps Veterans Navigation, now University of Washington at Tacoma's AmeriCorps Veterans Navigator) and me," said Di Giorgio. "We were tired of hearing about more and more veteran suicides nationwide. We decided we could locally impact the men and women directly around us, so we started cleaning house first. As we looked deeper and deeper into the causes of veteran suicide, we found that some (veterans) just felt forgotten, unappreciated and skill-less within our community. We decided that these stereotypes and generalizations could only be challenged and crushed one way, by raising awareness. Thus, planting ‘22 flags a day, for 22 Too Many Veteran Suicides' began."  

In addition to SVOTCC, many TCC students, faculty and staff participated. Dominick Bergeron, vice president of legislation for TCC, was drawn to the event and asked if he could help and show his support. 

"My family is a military family and has struggled with mental health," Bergeron said. "This event is that silent show of support. We can't know who is struggling, and this is our way of showing support."   

Di Giorgio is not only the president of SVOTCC, but he is also the founder. After hearing that a student veteran freaked out in class, slammed his books and ran out of the room, Di Giorgio was troubled and began to wonder where the vet went -- and if he was going to harm himself or others. 

"The next week, September 2016, I decided to print just over 400 paper flyers and pass them around campus, basically trying to gauge interest in connecting veterans together," Di Giorgio said. "The first six months were really rough. No one showed up, except my officers, and I leaned heavily on Frank McDougald, TCC Veteran Certifying Official, for advice and guidance. Then one day, six veterans came in, then 20, and the organization started gaining serious traction. I then was able to capture the true pulse of the student veterans on campus.

"We held a focus group with a couple faculty members, video recorded it, and found out, ‘Why don't veterans identify as veterans on TCC's campus?'" he continued. "Their voices were loud and clear, and I was determined to help solve those troubling issues. Almost two years later, we have solved many problems and issues, but we have a long way to go. We only want to build a future brighter for our younger veterans." 

The group is joining with the student veterans from UW-T and its student veterans group, UW-T Veterans, which is also placing 22 flags for 22 veteran suicides on its campus. The two groups will finish their last 22 flags on the TCC campus, symbolizing the strength and community from one college to the next.

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