Veterans Vow To Fight Suicide With A Sword Forged From 9/11 Tragedy

May 3, 2016
Originally published on May 15, 2016 8:38 am

Last winter, a retired Brooklyn firefighter drove down to Walter Reed Hospital, outside Washington, D.C., with what he considers holy artifacts: a bucket full of scraps from the World Trade Center.

"It's remarkable, the pieces of steel that we have. They're so important and you don't want to waste anything," said Danny Prince, who is also a Navy veteran.

Steve Danyluk, a former Marine combat pilot met Prince in Maryland and took on his cargo. Danyluk, another veteran activist, wanted to turn the steel into a symbol with the power to save the lives of veterans.

"The pure, almost religious nature of the steel from the World Trade Center ... it's being transformed into something about healing," said Danyluk.

That's how the steel wound up in McKinney, Texas, where another veteran hammered it into a Greek style "Spartan sword." Danyluk and Prince hope the sword will inspire veterans to take the "Spartan Pledge" — a promise made between veterans not to commit suicide.

Statistics on veterans' suicide are hard to pin down, but the high rate among the most recent generation of vets has alarmed the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA says its programs reduce suicide, but trust for the department is not running high. So veterans groups are looking for anything that works.

The Spartan Pledge was created almost accidentally by an Iraq vet named Boone Cutler, as he spoke with another veteran about a friend's suicide.

"I said to him, 'Have you ever thought about it?'" Cutler remembered. "And he said, 'Yeah, I think about it every day.' And it blew me away. We'd never discussed that — and we were tight. We covered each other."

Off the cuff, Cutler and his buddy made a promise.

"You really can't think too far ahead when you're in that state of mind, so I said, 'Just call. Just call me first. Don't punk out. Don't go without saying goodbye,'" Cutler told his friend. "And then we made an agreement to at least call each other first."

Other veterans helped that evolve into what he started calling the Spartan Pledge, which Cutler says around a thousand vets have made. It's just two lines, meant to give vets a pause before they hurt themselves:

"I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family."

Cutler recited the pledge with half a dozen veterans last month in McKinney, Texas, as the finished sword was presented to Prince, the Brooklyn firefighter and former sailor.

Skeptics wonder how effective the pledge might actually be in curbing suicides. Therapists have been making so-called "no suicide contracts" with patients for years.

"But they've really gone out of favor, there's no evidence that they actually prevent people from taking their lives," said Rajeev Ramchand, who researches military suicide at the Rand Corporation. He says the most important thing is to get a suicidal person into professional treatment.

"I don't think doing the pledge will do any harm, [but] we can't think [that] taking the pledge is going to all of a sudden reduce suicide," said Ramchand.

Ramchand does agree with these Spartan Pledge veterans about the importance of raising awareness about suicide and creating connections between veterans.

Cutler says many people can't understand the power of a promise made between veterans. He's confident that the pledge helps, in part by reconnecting people with a sense of mission. And it's also a way to bring up a difficult topic.

"That's one thing about the Spartan Pledge, it creates the conversation. It gives you a chance to bring that up," Cutler said. It never occurred to him that his friend would be having trouble, he remembered. "I never thought he needed to have that talk. And I don't think he thought I needed to."

Taking the pledge in Texas, next to the forge where the sword was made, were a local army vet who was crippled by a bullet early in the Iraq war; his mom, who also served in the Army; a soldier from Florida who lost both legs to a bomb in Afghanistan; another wounded Army Ranger who came down from Kansas; as well as Prince and Danyluk, the former Marine.

"Early on, we realized the value of getting guys together — some get really isolated, and that's one of the root causes [of suicide]," said Danyluk.

Danyluk had more plans to "get guys together" around the sword — last weekend at Ft. Belvior Army Base in Virginia, more than 300 veterans and caregivers attended what Danyluk called "Spartan Weekend." There was golfing and a bicycle race, as well as a concert at the Hard Rock Café. In between musical acts a military widow spoke about her husband's suicide. Then Prince brought out the sword.

"All impromptu — the guys closest to the sword laid their hands on it," said Danyluk. Those who couldn't reach it put their hands on someone who could, until the whole room was connected. Then several hundred veterans, caregivers and first responders recited the pledge in unison.

"I swear to God, I felt an electric tingle passing through me from one person to the next," Danyluk said.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Veterans of American wars have been working on surviving the aftermath. They want to focus, among other things, on avoiding suicide. And some have found a powerful symbol. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: This story begins with a big, red, New York fire department van driving down to Walter Reed Hospital a few months ago with a bucket full of steel scraps. The driver is Danny Prince, a retired firefighter from Brooklyn. The scraps are from the World Trade Center.

DANNY PRINCE: It's remarkable. The pieces of steel that we have, they're so important. And you don't want to waste anything.

LAWRENCE: The steel has been used for all sorts of crosses, Stars of David welded onto different FDNY engines.

PRINCE: And all the pieces of steel that were left over we just continued to leave in a bucket. And it was about 25 pounds.

LAWRENCE: Before his four decades in the fire department, Prince served in the Navy. Lately, he had been talking with another veterans advocate about the high rate of suicide.

PRINCE: Luker, he wanted to make something special.

LAWRENCE: Luker is the nickname of former Marine combat pilot Steve Danyluk. His idea was to use the steel.

STEVE DANYLUK: The pure, almost religious nature of the steel that's from the World Trade Center.

LAWRENCE: To make a symbol that would help veterans feel less isolated.

DANYLUK: It's being transformed into something that is all about healing.

PRINCE: It's going to Texas. And they're going to melt it down and forge a sword.

LAWRENCE: That's right, a sword. Luker, whose day job is as a pilot with American Airlines, got the steel out to a pretty well-known swordsmith in McKinney, Texas.

It's a Greek-style Spartan sword - short and broad at the tip - a Spartan sword because several years ago, two veterans came up with something they called the Spartan pledge.

BOONE CUTLER: My name's Boone Cutler. I served in Iraq 2005, 2006.

LAWRENCE: Boone Cutler was talking on the phone with a friend about a vet who had killed himself.

CUTLER: And then I said to him, hey, have you ever thought about it? And he said, yeah, I think about it every day. And I was like, wow. It blew me away. We'd never discussed that amongst each other. And I mean, we were tight. We covered each other.

LAWRENCE: Off the cuff, Cutler and his buddy made this promise.

CUTLER: You really can't think too far ahead when you're in that state of mind. So I said, you know, just call me first. Don't punk out. Don't go without saying goodbye. And then we made an agreement to at least call each other first.

LAWRENCE: Other veterans helped that evolve into what he started calling The Spartan Pledge. Last month, when the sword was finished, a half dozen vets from around the country took the pledge over it.

CUTLER: It's only two sentences. Repeat after me.

LAWRENCE: A local Army vet who was crippled by a bullet early in the Iraq War and his mom, who also served in the Army.

CUTLER: I will not take my life with my own hand.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I will not take my life with my own hand.

LAWRENCE: A soldier from Florida who lost both legs to a bomb in Afghanistan and another wounded Army Ranger who came down from Kansas.

CUTLER: Until I talk to my battle buddy first.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Until I talk to my battle buddy first.

LAWRENCE: And Danny Prince from Brooklyn and Luker, the Marine pilot, and others. Now, there are some skeptics. Therapists have been making so-called no-suicide suicide contracts with patients for years.

RAJEEV RAMCHAND: But they've really gone out of favor. There's no evidence that they actually prevent people from taking their lives.

LAWRENCE: Rajeev Ramchand researches military suicide at the RAND Corporation. He says the important thing is to get a suicidal person into professional treatment.

RAMCHAND: I don't think that taking the pledge would do any harm. We just have to be careful. We can't think that taking this pledge is going to all of a sudden reduce suicide.

LAWRENCE: He does agree with the Spartan Alliance veterans about raising awareness and creating connections between veterans. Boone Cutler says that's why he's confident that the pledge helps - it's the second half of the pledge.

CUTLER: My mission.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: My mission.

CUTLER: Is to find a mission.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Is to find a mission.

CUTLER: To help my war fighter family.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: To help my war fighter family.

LAWRENCE: Getting reconnected to some kind of mission is what these vets say they need to escape the isolation many find after the military - reconnected to someone you can eventually open up to.

CUTLER: That's the one thing about the Spartan Pledge. It creates the conversation - gives you a reason to bring it up.

LAWRENCE: So you might end up talking about it with someone who you would never think needed to have that talk.

CUTLER: I never thought he'd need to have talk. And I don't think he thought I needed to, you know, it was just...

LAWRENCE: After the ceremony in that Texas backyard, the sword was flown back to New York City, where dozens of firefighters took the pledge. This weekend, 200 hundred veterans and caregivers are getting together in Virginia at what they're calling Spartan Weekend. And they'll be invited to hold the sword and pledge not to kill themselves. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.