Starting at noon on Thursday, Kirk Mansfield manned his post at the Rice County Veterans Memorial to stand guard for 23 hours, placing one set of boots out each hour to represent the 22 veterans and one active duty service member who commits suicide every day in the United States.
After the 23-hour critical overwatch, as Mansfield calls it, the community will come together for a Veterans Day ceremony at 11 a.m. on Friday.
When Mansfield talked to the Daily News at around 3 p.m. on Thursday, three sets of boots were nearby.
“Unfortunately, we’ve already got three down,” said Mansfield of the shocking representation of the sets of boots. “It’s not good, but that’s why we are here.”
Mansfield discovered the boots display idea when a group called Operation 23 to Zero performed a similar act at the State Capitol.
“My impression, before I became involved in Operation 23 to Zero, is that I knew the issues were there, but I didn’t understand the severity or depth,” said Mansfield.
Now a leading member of the Operation 23 to Zero chapter in southern Minnesota, Mansfield wants to spread awareness of the staggering statistic of 23 military-related suicides each day in this country.
“Unless you are directly connected with a family member or a fellow veteran that’s committed suicide, you may or may not have any knowledge that this happens,” he said.
One person who has such a connection is Faribault City Councilor Joan Van Dyke.
Van Dyke comes from a family of veterans, some of whom have dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. She’s also familiar with suicide, as three family members have taken their own life.
“It’s important to raise awareness and end the stigma of suicide so people talk about it, because talking about it prevents it,” she said while volunteering to clean up the Memorial in advance of Friday’s ceremony. “The more we can do as a community to raise awareness, the better. If it saves one life, it’s important to be out here.”
To spread this kind of awareness, Operation 23 to Zero has started a social media campaign to put the issue in front of more people in the area with the hope that it leads to action.
“Don’t just think you can sit idly by and not take action,” said Mansfield. “We want people to be pushed into moving rather than just observing. We want them to reach out to a friend or family member that might be struggling. That’s where we really want to be.”
Tim Wunderlich, who is also heavily involved in Operation 23 to Zero, was standing guard while Mansfield picked up his son, Dakota, from school to come help prepare the Memorial on Thursday afternoon.
“It means that we need to pay more attention and not be so silent on the issue of suicide,” said Wunderlich of what the boots display meant to him. “We need to be more focused on how to solve the issue.”
Richard Cook, the leader of the Boy Scout troop that recently took on the challenge of maintaining the Memorial throughout the next year and who co-chairs the Veterans Memorial committee, was also present on Thursday afternoon. He spoke of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with suicide.
“It’s not a shameful thing to talk about it and talking about it brings awareness. From awareness, it can lead to help,” he said. “If help is out there and available and made accessible to people that need it, it can be for anyone who is facing problems.”
Leading up to Friday’s ceremony, Mansfield said he hopes a midnight adrenaline rush will get him through his watch shift overnight, and he expects help from area veterans’ advocates, Jeremiah Miller and Barry Erickson.
No matter how many people are by his side, however, the focus is on the meaning behind the boots.
“It’s really trying to reach a broader audience to let our fellow veterans know that this is an absolute epidemic of exponential proportion,” he explained.