October 20, 2021

Watchfire event shines light on vets, soldiers who committed suicide

Lighting the way home

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

A crowd attends a watch fire Monday at a Veterans Day event at the CNY Living History Center. Watch fires historically were used to guide soldiers home from battle or a long march.

James Knight’s face was solemn as he watched the bright orange flame of a watchfire Monday outside of the Central New York Living History Center burning into the night, guiding the way for soldiers to find their way home.

Knight, an Army veteran of the Iraq War, said the light represented a guide home for soldiers who committed suicide.

“It’s something that we all need to be there for each other in life,” he said. “It can be avoided and we can beat it. It’s just a matter of us coming together and being there for each other.”

Knight, who knew soldiers he served with committing suicide, said veteran suicide is an issue known more within the veteran community than outside of it. Five veterans have killed themselves in Cortland County in the past six years.

In 2018, veteran suicides reached a five-year high, to 541, a rate of 24.8 suicides per 100,000 veterans, the Department of Defense has reported.

“Veteran suicides went from 22 suicides a day to 20. It’s getting better, but it’s still nowhere where it needs to be. It
should be zero,” Knight said.

The second annual event hosted by the History Center also helped retire more than 100 American flags, said Kevin Walsh, Central New York Living History Center board president.

Watchfires have been used since medieval times to guide lost soldiers home, said Homer village trustee and veteran Patrick Clune in an address to nearly 80 people.

Those include veterans who committed suicide.

One hundred thirty-six veterans in New York state committed suicide in 2017, 45 of them between the ages of 55 and 74, Clune said.

“It is tragic enough that we lose our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines during war. How much more so is it when we lose them at home?” Clune said.

He said veterans must look out for each other and be aware of the resources available to help.

“The time to reach out is now and not at a funeral. Tonight, let each of us leave here as our own watchfire, a beacon in the darkness for our fellow veterans … so that we may all be here next year,” he said.

Outside, the bonfire glowed bright on Dave Van Benschoten’s face; his thoughts were 50 years and 9,000 miles away.

Van Benschoten, of Homer, was a combat engineer in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. Those were the guys who cleared forward bases, roads and other facilities ahead of other units, and blew things up in the rearguard if soldiers had to retreat. Shelling virtually every night, combat, lots of fear, too much death.

“I was in a shell for a good number of months,” Van Benschoten said as he watched the fire; his soul was in a very dark space.

He once lost five friends in one night, as they were caught in a crossfire. “You went from not wanting to kill anything to wanting nothing but to kill,” Van Benschoten said. One can get a little lost. One can need a watchfire to find home.

Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.