Paulette Fryar was named the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year on May 7th, 2020. It was the first time in the award's history that it went to a Coast Guard spouse and the excitement over her win reverberated loudly throughout the military spouse community. The next day, the joy and excitement over her honor would be muted.
Her cousin committed suicide.
David Heathers was a Marine veteran of the Iraq war. After leaving the service and returning home, he suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder. Living through the effects of that diagnosis in the midst of the isolation of COVID-19, would ultimately take his life. Fryar comes from a long line of family members who have served, but had not yet truly been touched by devastating impacts of war, until now.
"I had no idea how bad it was for my cousin David until it was too late. If there is something I can do to bring more awareness so that other families don't have to go through this, I want to," Fryar said.
Although her initial platform of serving young military spouses and families had garnered her the title of Military Spouse of the Year, this deeply personal experience shifted things for her. Fryar has become very vocal about discussing the impacts of trauma and PTSD. She wanted to do something to combat the issue.
The Million Mile project was born.
In collaboration with the 2020 branch and base winners of the Military Spouse of the Year award, she approached Armed Forces Insurance to help sponsor the project. They immediately said yes. The goal was to unite the entire military community, as well as any patriotic supporters in raising suicide awareness. The participants would do this through logging miles for 22 days, to remember and honor the veterans lost to suicide.
"I knew I wanted to start a campaign to bring attention to this issue and provide some resources in hopes that other families would not have to experience this kind of loss," Fryar explained.
The project began on August 15th, 2020 – which would have been her cousin's 39th birthday and was the day in which is family held his celebration of life. This day was also significant because it was exactly 22 days before suicide prevention week would begin in September.
"One reason I wanted to start this Million Mile Project is that losing my cousin to suicide really opened my eyes to how awful this issue of military and veteran PTSD and suicide is. Once I saw it, I couldn't turn a blind eye or look away," Fryar said.
Studies have shown that up to 20% of veterans who have served since 9/11 are diagnosed with PTSD. Suicide has also been on the rise according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. Medical professionals are now on alert for increased rates of suicide due to the isolation and stress that COVID-19 is placing on veterans in particular.
Fryar and the other 2020 branch winners created a Facebook group for The Million Mile Project and it has over 6,000 members and continues to grow. The unique miles project allows members to log their miles in almost any way. Participants can walk, run, bike, swim or even skateboard for the suicide awareness project.
The parents of Fryar's cousin have joined the project and have expressed their deep appreciation for the love and support they've received. It is their hope that through creating events like The Million Mile Project, they can reach people contemplating suicide and show them they matter and how important they truly are.
It is their hope that their story will show that life isn’t better without them.
"As the 2020 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, my main quote is 'Together we are stronger' and I feel it applies to the Million Mile Project so well," Fryar explained. She continued, "Working together on a campaign like this is so important! I want people suffering from the loss of a loved one or possibly a veteran struggling with PTSD or suicide ideation to know that they are not alone, that they are needed and loved deeply."
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