The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 22 veterans are taking their own lives each day. But Nevada-born Debra Burgos feels that number might be too conservative.
“It’s not even a real number,” she said. “I can tell you it’s a lot more than that.”
So she and her husband formed a nonprofit group called RaceToErase22.
“What we’ve tried to do is first raise awareness about the problem, share resources with our veterans and active-duty personnel both locally and nationally, and also educate the public and civilians.”
She said the suicide problem has been getting media coverage, but she is always surprised when she meets individuals “who have no idea about the incredible tragedy that is occurring every single day.”
She said her research shows that less than 25 percent of veterans obtain care through the VA and only 21 states report suicide data. “So the number of suicides could be a lot higher than 22.”
Burgos is not a veteran herself, but “my entire family is made up of veterans,” she said. Her father, her brother and father-in-law served, and several of her cousins are Vietnam veterans. Her organization consists of volunteers who are involved out of passion and a duty they feel they owe, Burgos said. Many of the members are involved with off-road racing, and they use that sport to give veterans an added sense of self-respect and to raise money for their work.
One of the RaceToErase22 programs allows veterans to experience what off-road racing is all about.
Burgos said one of her strongest partners is Tony Scott, an off-road racer out of Kingman, Arizona. The group partners with Scott in a professional vehicle during off-road learning experiences.
“Last March at the Mint 400, we had four veterans with us that participated with the team. They did a great job. Last year we participated in the Vegas to Reno race, which was 530 miles in the dirt with approximately 350 other race vehicles. It took us 12 hours to complete that race. We had four veterans with us on that as well. It was an incredible adventure, but, more importantly than just the race, it’s the team, working together for a common goal, a common purpose.”
Names aside, the actual competition goes from Beatty to Dayton.
Burgos has coined it “dirt therapy.”
With the veterans going along for the ride, others are trained to participate as course workers, which contributes to their well-being.
“We hope that this gets them involved so they can continue and develop a passion for the sport,” Burgos said.
Past efforts by the group have included providing a wheelchair to a needy veteran and paying for a week’s stay at a motel for a veteran and his wife until his VA benefits took effect, she said.
In another effort to provide awareness, the group has constructed its Gone But Not Forgotten Memorial Wall, which displays stories of those who took their own lives. She said that all too often veterans who take their own lives are not eligible to be listed on certain memorial walls, so RaceToErase22 developed its own.
“It’s a portable wall that has the names and photos of many veterans that we’ve lost to suicide. We take it every place we go to display it.”
The group’s website is undergoing revision, but for more information or to volunteer, Burgos can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-400-3609.
Chuck N. Baker is a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War and the host of “That’s America to Me” every Sunday at 7 a.m. on 97.1 FM.