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7,300 flags blanket grounds of Buffalo Naval Park

The flags represent the average number of U.S. veterans who lose their battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year, according to the naval park.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — For the fourth year in a row, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park installed thousands of flags on the naval park grounds to honor veterans lost to suicide.

The 7,300 flags represent the average number of U.S. veterans who lose their battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year, an average of 22 people per day; although in recent years that number has been declining.

The display titled "One Life – One Flag Installation" serves as a visual representation meant to raise awareness about veteran suicide and has been organized by 'The Battle Within Foundation' since 2019.

Co-founder Dr. Mark Donnelly said he and two other masonic brothers were inspired to start the foundation after losing their fellow brother 30-year-old Captain Peter Schank. Schank served a couple of tours in Afghanistan before taking his own life in 2017.

"We're trying to show scale you know each one of these flags also represents the triangular-shaped flags that sit on somebody's fireplace... you're looking at this and you're seeing all these beautiful little waving flags and I hope it sinks in, each one of these stands for a human," Donnelly said.

Although federal data on veteran suicide lags behind two years the latest data from 2019 reported in Fall 2021 showed the lowest number of suicide deaths in 12 years and a 7% decrease. For groups like 'The Battle Within Foundation' even the smallest change is important because for so long veteran suicide was too taboo to talk about.

"There's a problem out there but a lot of people don't understand that in my group, I grew up in the 50s and 60s so it was a different world then," said Paul Smaczniak, an army veteran who served in the Vietnam War.

Smaczniak said that over the years he's seen, for the better, awareness grow.

Michael Smith who was at the Naval and Military Park Monday night told 2 On Your Side his son struggled with his emotions after serving in Iraq but whether an old or young servicemember Donnelly said the simplest prevention is always a conversation.

"Actually asking are you thinking of killing yourself today it sounds horrible but you have to ask the question," Donnelly said, adding that the bravery shown at that moment could just save the life of one of America's brave men or women.

'The Battle Within Foundation' has grown significantly since 2019 and in just the last month announced a partnership with the Masonic Medical Research Center in Utica, NY. Donnelly said the foundation through a $250,000 endowment will be looking into whether certain individuals are predisposed to trauma more than others.

For a $22 donation, the Buffalo Military and Naval Park will allow people to purchase one of the flags from the display after Memorial Day, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting 'The Battle Within Foundation.'

More information:

  • Purchase a flag and certificate here
  • Learn more about The Battle Within Foundation here
  • Learn more about the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park here
  • Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255

This is the first time the Buffalo Naval Park has been open to visitors since mid-April. The park temporarily closed down after USS The Sullivans started taking on water.

Even though the ship is upright now, it is still off-limits. However, visitors can still look at the 78-year-old Fletcher-class destroyer from a distance. It will remain closed while work continues to preserve and maintain the ship.

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