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Vets Hold Pasadena Vigil To Raise Suicide Awareness

Eric Fleming served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. He fought in the first Gulf War, and is still suffering ill effects from combat. John Ismay/KPCC

Starting Wednesday morning, military veterans began walking back and forth across Pasadena's scenic Colorado Street Bridge. Their goal: raise public awareness about the fact that 20 vets kill themselves in the U.S. every day.

The Colorado Street Bridge is a tragic icon - over the years, so many people have leaped from it to their deaths that it's earned the nickname "The Suicide Bridge."

During the three-day vigil, which will go 24 hours a day, vets will stand hour-long watches at the bridge, which has been decorated with dozens of small American flags zip-tied to the fencing that's meant to discourage jumpers.

The Glendale-based nonprofit Wellness Works organized the vigil.

On Wednesday morning, dozens of vets met at a nearby park. Many wore "campaign hats " -- baseball caps identifying them as veterans of the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eric Fleming was one of the first to walk the bridge. He fought in the first Gulf War, and says he's been different ever since.

"I just knew something was wrong," Fleming said. "My girlfriend, when I returned to Germany – that’s where I was stationed at -- she could tell right away something had changed."

Fleming walked the bridge in a round boonie hat decorated with an Army infantry pin. With his aviator-style sunglasses and his beard, he could pass by anonymously in most crowds. But not here.

Here, Fleming fit in with everybody else.

That's a big change from when he came back from Iraq," he said. Back then, I just really couldn't put my finger on it, but I definitely felt alone."

Even today, Fleming has trouble sleeping. He still thinks about things like picking up the remains of dead Iraqi soldiers.

Fleming’s gotten care at VA hospitals, but says they haven’t been able to help much.

"After all the wars we’ve had, going back to when this country was created, you’d think they’d have it dialed-in by now," Fleming said. He says poor VA care is a big reason why so many vets are taking their own lives.

When asked by a reporter if he’d lost any buddies to suicide, Fleming said he’d rather not talk about it.

Veterans and Military Issues Reporter