DeKALB – It’s Friday night and beer is flowing at the American Legion Post No. 66 in DeKalb. Cindy Hupke sits at a table with friends and her husband, U.S. Air Force veteran Jim Hupke, as lively conversation fills the crowded room.
Someone cheers – bingo has just been called.
That’s a typical Friday at the post, 1204 S. Fourth St., Cindy said. To an outsider, the fun and games may have looked like a casual outing among people with shared experiences.
But there’s a deeper meaning, Cindy said. The Legion Post is a place where veterans can come, be themselves and hopefully feel safe and supported enough to lean on a friend when life gets to be too much.
“Perhaps there’s an importance in making sure that people from newer generations understand that freedom really isn’t free. There are sacrifices,” Cindy said. “It costs human lives. And minds.”
Just hours earlier and one day after President Joe Biden addressed the nation about the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, Cindy sat at her kitchen table inside her DeKalb home. She was joined by Sarah Newby, also of DeKalb.
The women have launched a local campaign to prevent veterans from committing suicide.
Cindy, a retired nurse, and Newby, the DeKalb Legion Auxiliary president, are members of the American Legion’s Auxiliary group, which is made up of military spouses. Both women come from health care backgrounds and have military families.
They’ve led the charge for a DeKalb area-centric Be the One campaign. It’s a nationwide initiative by the American Legion meant to bolster local support networks – through military families, community resources and word of mouth – in an attempt to prevent future veteran deaths by suicide.
At the center of the Be the One campaign is a community, cultivating a space where those in pain feel comfortable enough to seek help. Suicide is preventable, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among the jovial crowd gathered at the post was Hunter Munch, 26, of DeKalb, a U.S. Marines Reserve veteran who served from 2015 to 2021 in the 2nd Battalion 24th Division infantry stationed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Munch, a Sycamore High School graduate, said enlisting after high school led to some of the happiest times of his life.
“I was doing an electrician apprenticeship, and I had a lot to drink one day and was just feeling pretty patriotic,” Munch said.
He’s seen firsthand the pain that comes from losing a loved one to suicide, however.
About a year after Munch enlisted, his best friend from his T-ball days, Liam Sullivan, joined him. A few years later, Sullivan died by suicide.
“It was very rough,” Munch said.
For Munch, having a tight-knit community at the Legion post made a difference in the days that followed.
“Having them there helped,” Munch said. “It’s just nice having a group. I just know I’m welcome. You can shoot the [breeze]. It can help that one person who needs it. It is one big family.”
Families of veterans struggling with mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder also need help, Newby said. She recounted a story of a co-worker’s veteran son who died by suicide years ago. He was found by his wife and children.
“It affects their children, their wives, like when they’re having their episodes,” Newby said. “Their family is, it’s like shattered. The kids’ lives will never be the same.”
For many who have served, talking about their time in the military can be difficult. That’s compounded by the stigma that still exists surrounding mental health treatment. According to the American Legion, veterans rarely advertise if they’re going through a personal crisis.
“There’s a real stigma – still – associated with mental health, particularly in men, and [in] men of color it’s even worse,” Cindy Hupke said.
The suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than the general population, and veterans comprise almost 25% of suicide deaths in the U.S., according to the American Legion. For veteran women, that rate is 2.5 times higher.
In 2020, there were 6,146 veteran deaths by suicide, or an average of about 16 veterans a day.
The trends are troubling for younger military members, too, Legion numbers show. Between 2001 and 2020, the suicide rate among veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 increased by 95.3%. For those ages 55 to 74, the rate rose 58.2% in the same time.
According to the Legion, it’s estimated that up to half of veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental illness diagnosis.
What can be done?
A good start might be cultivating safe spaces in veteran circles – whether Legion members or not – for area veterans or active duty military members to know they’re not alone, Cindy Hupke said.
Maybe it’s educating Legion bartenders about the signs demonstrating that someone is low. Maybe it’s building partnerships with area health care institutions to advocate for increased access to local crisis centers and follow-up resources.
Maybe it’s working with local law enforcement to educate families on gun safety, since data shows that someone in crisis is less likely to attempt suicide if weapons aren’t easily accessible.
That’s why military support networks, such as the Legion auxiliary, are crucial to maintaining sanity and guidance, Cindy Hupke said.
Finding community is what three area Vietnam-era veterans did in their decades-long friendship and service work through the American Legion in DeKalb.
Jim Hupke served as an Air Force sergeant from 1967 to 1972. He was based in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, where he coordinated bomber jets.
Doug Massier of DeKalb – Newby’s father – also served as an Air Force sergeant from 1968 to 1972 and was stationed in Texas and North Carolina, where he manufactured oxygen for fighter pilots so they could breathe at high altitudes.
Bill Stanley of Sycamore served as a U.S. Army sergeant from 1966 to 1969 and was deployed to Long Binh, Vietnam.
All three men enlisted – Massier and Stanley at age 20 and Jim Hupke before he finished high school – in part knowing they all had low draft numbers and would be selected anyway, they said.
“The place is like family,” Stanley said of the Legion Post.
The men also serve in the post’s Honor Guard, traveling to veterans’ funerals across the county. They’re on the Legion’s board of trustees.
On that Friday night, the Vietnam veterans reminisced about times past.
Stanley lamented that the Army barracks never got steak and said he cherished when he got fresh milk.
Jim Hupke said he’ll never eat liver and onions again, remembering when he had to eat the meal three days straight.
Massier recalled the discipline he learned in basic training in Amarillo, Texas. Recruits had to learn to make their beds with the sheets so tightly tucked a quarter could bounce off it.
It’s been a hard-fought few decades for the three men to feel the community rally around their experience. “Thank you for your service” wasn’t something they heard in the beginning during a divisive Vietnam War era.
“We were spit on. They called me baby killer,” Massier said of his return home to the DeKalb County area after his service.
Jim Hupke said that during his discharge transition he was advised not to tell anyone he’d served during Vietnam.
Part of the appeal of the Legion, Jim said, was its ability to show veterans that a community exists around them that cares about the sacrifices they’ve made.
“It’s a call to duty,” he said. “You’re called in. It’s an honor to serve your country. [...] My parents served in the Navy during World War II, so I got that sense of patriotism.”
Legion post and auxiliary members said advocating for strengthened access to basic needs also is a form of suicide prevention.
In November 2021, the Biden administration announced a series of priorities with the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and Defense. President Joe Biden called it “a public health strategy” to reduce suicide rates among veterans.
Steps included enhancing access to crisis care and follow-up support at crisis centers; reducing factors proven to contribute to suicide, including financial strains, a lack of housing, food insecurity and unemployment; and increasing research to better identify risk factors of military members who die by suicide.
A year ago, Gov. JB Pritzker issued a similar campaign: a public education governor’s challenge in coordination with the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The challenge was meant to grow awareness of resources available to Illinois veterans in crisis.
What does that look like at home in DeKalb?
It looks like advocating for increased follow-up care for those seeking help, soliciting free gun locks from area law enforcement to help prevent access to weapons for those in crisis, depression screenings, group exercise, caregiver support and more, Cindy Hupke said.
A 24/7 mental health crisis hotline also is free and available to all. Veterans need not be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect. Those in need can call 988 and press 1, chat online at www.988lifeline.org or text 838255.
If local efforts can save just one life, Cindy said, that will be enough.
“We’re not going to know how many suicides we prevent,” she said. “But we do know that these steps – addressing it, talking to [veterans], getting them to the right point, giving them the resources they need, having resources available, having access – all that stuff will help.
“Even if it helps one person, one family, we’ve done a good job. There’s one more person who’s going to see their grandchildren grow up, there’s one more person in this world who might graduate from college.”