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When you look at the numbers, you can’t help but gasp. According to the Los Angeles Times, US combat veterans are committing suicide at a rate a full 50 percent higher than that of the general population. In fact, some VA studies suggest that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. If it weren’t already clear, those numbers clearly state that the reintegration and health measures set up to bring combat veterans back into daily life are not working. Veterans are suffering — and paying “the ultimate price” long after the battlefield is a memory.
Skydiver Jim Osterman is a Navy veteran himself. And he thinks that skydiving, of all things, might be one of the many possible answers to the problem. (We at WSC passionately believe in the power of skydiving to change lives for the better, so we couldn’t agree more.) Jim says he has been affected by veteran suicide “more times than he wants to think about.” After losing close comrades-in-arms, he was moved to take action. He formed Veterans Skydive For Life. The organization pairs up skydiving and long-distance motorcycle riding (both tried-and-true community-builders) to reach out to veterans and bring them in to a connected, supportive network of like-minded people.
“I knew when I got home from active duty,” he explains, “that what was missing in my life was the camaraderie 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.”
…’But skydiving?, you might be thinking. It isn’t, after all, on any military psychiatrist’s bulletin board (that we know of. Yet.)
“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 have military discounts (WSC does too!) 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 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.”
When Jim first formed Veterans Skydive For Life (VS4L), he set out on a 10,000-mile dropzone-to-dropzone motorcycle trip on his Yamaha Raider to raise awareness. He recently completed another long ride: 20,000 miles on a Harley Davidson Ultra. So far, he has logged 77 dropzones and spread his message further than he’d imagined possible. To date, VS4L has supporters in 42 different states and in 39 different countries – on every continent but Antarctica.
“The name has really gotten out there, but the important thing to us is that the word is being spread,” Jim says. “I get a lot of personal messages, thanking us for what we are doing. We get those from all over the country, which is really amazing, because when we first started it was mostly local support.”
We’re more than proud to support VS4L from our beautiful Wisconsin home — and we’re hosting Jim for a gala and family-friendly event that runs from the 30th of August through the 1st of September to do just that. The entire community — not just skydivers, but every curious soul around Madison — is invited to attend! Watch demonstration jumps, cheer on veterans completing their first tandem skydives, barbecue, play games, and enjoy performances by musician Greg Gilbertson.
“WSC is exactly the type of environment that we want,” Jim enthuses. “They are such an awesome dropzone. They’re all about having fun, and about putting smiles on people’s faces. It’s just an awesome atmosphere down there, and it’s definitely the perfect place for us to have our event. I know that between Bo and Alex and all the staff down there, we are going to show every veteran who turns up an absolutely awesome time. And that’s what that weekend is about, really. Putting a smile on veterans’ faces, and making them realize they can enjoy this type of connection and fun any time they stop at a dropzone.”
“We want to give them options other than suicide,” Jim concludes, “and help them to start loving their life again.”
Want to get involved? We’d love to see you at the event! Stop by between 1900 Friday, 30 August, and 1900, 01 September, and join the fun. Feel free to bring every veteran you know! We can’t wait to meet you.