On a mission with SAVE22

Promoting awareness, prevention of suicide rate among veterans

REMEMBERING THEM — Tom Indorf, the founder of SAVE22, looks over the more than 250 photos of veterans who have committed suicide, some of whom he knew, others not. The Carrollton man, a veteran himself who contemplated taking his own life after experiencing difficulty adapting to civilian life, ultimately launched the nonprofit that raises awareness for and the prevention of veteran and active duty suicide. The group meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce office in the town square. The meetings are open to the public. Planning will continue for the fourth-annual SAVE22 Veterans Suicide Awareness Hike, to be held May 4 at the Carroll County Vets Club at 2038 Brenner Road, Carrollton. The photos are on a dedicated wall space in Indorf's garage. -- Janice Kiaski

CARROLLTON — Marine Corps veteran Tom Indorf almost became a statistic.

Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide, according to the lifelong Carrollton resident who founded SAVE22 in November 2015 — a nonprofit that has helped him help others.

The suicide prevention program is for veterans and active duty personnel with meetings held on the second Tuesday of the month at the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, located in the town square next to Donna’s Deli. They begin at 7 p.m.

“Our mission is to stop the epidemic of 22 veterans a day committing suicide by offering alternative therapies,” Indorf said, explaining that the meetings are open to the public as well as veterans and involve discussion of upcoming projects and programs. Or it’s a time, too, to share, vent, talk, whatever.

A regular meeting attracts between 15 and 20 people, but more are welcome.

The next meeting will include continued discussion on the organization’s main event and fundraiser — its fourth-annual SAVE22 Veterans Suicide Awareness Hike, which covers 7 miles. It will be held May 4 at the Carroll County Vets Club at 2038 Brenner Road with registration from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. with the hike itself beginning at 10 a.m. The guest speaker for the opening ceremony before the hike will be Kenneth Koon, author of “Listen, Learn, Lead.” A chaplain in the Army Reserves, Koon is the founder of Armed Forces Mission and Stop Suicide USA.

“SAVE22 has helped me not to become one of the 22,” said Indorf, a 1995 graduate of Carrollton High School who served in the military from 1995-99. “During that time I was a part of three operations: Operation Joint Guard, Bosnia; Operation Silver Wake, Albania, where I won a humanitarian medal; and Operation Guardian Retrieval, Congo/Zaire,” he said.

Indorf suffers from a brain injury that mimics post-traumatic stress disorder and is caused by a malaria pill, mefloquine, that many veterans were given to prevent and treat malaria. He said he can relate to veterans who experience survivor’s guilt or have difficulty adjusting to civilian life after returning home.

That was his experience.

Indorf said he struggled to find a job and to find a purpose.

In explaining his “failure to adapt,” Indorf said, “Once you leave boot camp, your brain is hardwired to be a warrior, and you’re always stuck in that warrior mentality. Once you get through boot camp, it never leaves. They can teach you how to put everything on, but never teach you how to take it off. It just never leaves you. I will go to a restaurant and have to sit with my back where I have to be able to see everything that’s going on, and I’m always hyper vigilant, and it just never leaves you,” he said. “It’s something that’s always stuck with me, and I think a lot of veterans look for a purpose when they get out, and they don’t find it right away, and some of them have a really hard time adapting, and you put PTSD on top of it, and they think this (suicide) is the best solution.”

He continued, “It’s not that they don’t want help or try to seek help. Sometimes they’re not heard or they don’t tell anybody that they’re hurting that bad, and they just figure that’s the best way out. They don’t think about the long-term effects on the families, and I’m kind of catching the back end of how the families are going through this by doing this (support group), and it pushes my mission a little bit harder to stop this, because I don’t like adding faces to this wall,” Indorf said, gesturing toward a wall in his garage.

“This was an idea I had to remember the ones who have committed suicide. There are 252 here and more sitting on that table that I have to hang up yet,” he said. Some he knows, most he doesn’t, but there is a section for family and friends.

“A lot of the parents I have met just by doing this wall,” he said, noting he gets letters and pictures from people who have become aware of his wall dedication project.

Indorf said he was at an especially low point after being in a car accident and had even penned a suicide note at what was a reflective period of his life. On social media, he saw information about a hike in Columbus, going 22 kilometers, carrying 22 pounds in remembrance of 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.

“So I did more research, and I was bummed because I couldn’t make that hike, and then I realized, other people feel the same way I do — service related or not. These are my brothers and sisters,” he said.

“I came up with the idea to do one in my town. It won’t be as big as Columbus, but let’s see how many get there,” Indorf said he remembered thinking.

The first hike in Carrollton was 5 miles in 2016. The last two have been 7 miles.

There were 575 the first year and close to 800 the past two.

“We’re hoping to triple that number this year,” Indorf said, noting there is no cost to participate, but donations are accepted, and there are T-shirt sales. “We have two different hikes this year.” One will be less distance for those “who can’t make 7 miles or do these hills, because this is Carroll County, a lot of hills,” he said.

SAVE22 started in November 2015 as an idea for the first awareness hike.

“I found my purpose. I knew I had to help others who felt like I did,” Indorf said.

“Our goals for 2019 are to expand with more programs to help struggling veterans. Our programs already include fishing trips, equine therapy, veteran art therapy, music therapy, golf trips and outings and hike therapy,” he said. “Our biggest goal is to start the therapy center.”

The latter, he explained, involves an existing building in Carroll County hoped to be transformed into a one-of-a-kind veteran physical/mental rehab facility and conference hall that also would be available for use by the public. He estimated the project to cost about $3.5 million.

Indorf said he believes SAVE22 is fulfilling its mission.

“I get probably six or seven calls a week for somebody who needs help — they need somebody to talk to,” he said.

“Anyone wanting to contact us can do so through SAVE22veterans on Facebook, at www.SAVE22.vet or through me at (330) 260-5491.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)