Image by Quincy Kennedy, Courtesy Skydive Carolina
It started with a simple fact: Soldiers are dying--after they come home--from self-inflicted injuries.
The numbers are seriously disturbing. The veteran suicide rate, according to the Los Angeles Times, hovers a full 50 percent higher than the suicide rate of the general population. Some Veterans Administration studies suggest that up to 22 veterans end their lives every day. Those statistics underline the stark fact that it is overwhelming, for many servicepeople, to successfully make the transition from military to civilian life. The numbers indicate that the social safety net built to facilitate re-integration doesn’t seem to be up to the task. Unsupported veterans are suffering--achingly alone and mortally vulnerable.
As harrowing as those statistics are, there’s another essential fact to face: one suicide is one suicide too many.
Skydiver Jim Osterman, a Navy veteran himself, thinks that we--as representatives of our sport--can make a big difference in the lives of veterans. Osterman has been touched by suicide “more times then [he] want to think about.” After losing close military friends to suicide, he was moved to take action.
Jim Osterman's late friend, Frank in his Marine uniform.
“I knew when I got home from active duty,” he explains, “That what was missing in my life was the camaraderie that I had while I was in the service. The [veteran] suicide rate is as high as it is because these guys and gals are coming home and feeling completely alone, even if they actually aren’t in a physical sense. You don’t have that closeness you had while you were in the service. The dropzone community can fill that gap.”
Osterman’s mission, project and passion is pretty simple: to make skydivers aware of the aching need for community in veterans’ lives, and to ask skydivers to bring as many people to the dropzone as they can.
“It makes all the sense in the world,” Osterman explains. “Dropzones are very military-friendly. There tend to be lots of military people around, and dropzones generally already have military discounts and events for, say, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. But we need to let our veterans know that they are welcome to the dropzone everyday--not just the major vets’ holidays. Hopefully they will decide to skydive, but even if they choose not to jump, they need to know that they are welcome to come and just hang out.”
“They need to experience the camaraderie at the heart of it,” Osterman enthuses. “It’s literally lifesaving, in some cases. Pretty much anybody is accepted into skydiving, and it doesn’t matter what your background is--your ethnicity--whatever. It just doesn’t matter. You walk in that door and you are greeted warmly. Veterans need that welcome more than I can say.”
Jim joins up with a couple of buddies on a leg of his long, long trip.
To raise awareness for this mission--and to commemorate the memories of his departed friends--Jim took off on a long-haul, dropzone-to-dropzone motorcycle trip on his Yamaha Raider. Sure, he made a few skydives on the trip, but the jumping always took a back seat to the mission. “I went to several drop zones that I knew I would not be able to jump at,” he says, “Just so I could speak with the owners in person rather than via email or over the phone.”
Thirty-eight dropzones later, Osterman has spread his message all over the east coast of the US--and so far, he’s been overwhelmed at his fellow skydivers’ receptivity. “It really makes my point,” he says, “That even though they’d never met me before, I was completely welcomed and heard.”
Interested, but unsure how to help? According to Jim, it’s very easy to get involved.
“If you’re a skydiver, you can do this,” Osterman insists. “When you learn that someone is a veteran, approach them with an invitation. Let them know that they’re welcome to come out anytime and just hang out--sit on the park bench and watch some swooping, or join the weekend barbecue, or whatever else happens to be going on. Offer them a ride.”
Lynn Luzynski Gromaski, Steve Luzynski and Karen Luzynski.
“We’re looking to get these men and women out of whatever isolating situation they might be in and bring them to the dropzone so they can see the camaraderie that we as skydivers share,” he continues, “If we help even one man or woman see that people do care as a society, it will all be worth it.”
When all was said and done, Osterman had exceeded his 4,000-mile goal by three thousand miles, had personally spread his message to hundreds of people and had earned the hearty support of several dropzones (including, exceptionally, Skydive Carolina). He’s already making plans to repeat the journey on the west coast next year.
“‘Bring a Veteran to the Dropzone Day’ isn’t enough,” Osterman says. “I want the skydiving community to participate in the mission to bring veterans to the dropzone whenever, wherever they can. It’s not just another day. It’s another place for veterans. We can save lives.”