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G.I. Joe Photo Exhibit Brings To Life Real Plight Of Struggling Veterans

By Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif — These are no ordinary Joes.

At first glance, the G.I. Joe action figures who are the subjects of a stark photo exhibit on display at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library look disturbingly real. And that’s precisely the point.

Mark Pinto hopes the iconic toy dolls bring to life the often unseen challenges that America’s veterans face — including those returning from the post-9/11 wars. The titles of the eight-photo “Joes Come Home” series say it all. Homeless Joe. Drunk Joe. PTSD Joe. There’s even Suicide Joe.

“We send people into war as if they are toy soldiers, then we don’t care for them when they come back,” said Pinto, 58, a Gulf War veteran who was a Marine helicopter pilot. “There’s something about the dolls that pull you in closer. It’s discomforting. People don’t want to look at the homeless. They don’t want to think about the suicides. They want to ignore all of this.”

If the G.I. Joes are too subtle, the symbolism of the second part of Pinto’s exhibit — “22 Joes Every Day — is impossible to miss. He spent a recent week hanging 22 smaller toy soldiers each day from the library’s fourth-floor ceiling. The plastic men, each dangling from a hangman’s noose, are a searing visual of how many vets take their own lives every day.

Pinto’s social art is part of a program called “War Comes Home: Our Veterans, Our Communities,” which is a partnership of the San Jose Public Library, San Jose State University, and Goodwill of Silicon Valley. The series also includes upcoming panel forums, dramatic readings as well as book club discussions of “What It Is Like To Go To War” by veteran Karl Marlantes.

The goal is to spark public conversation about how society can better support vets who are having a difficult time as they transition back into civilian life.

“What we’re finding is that the veteran community is ready and willing to talk about its concerns,” said Angie Miraflor, the library’s division manager of literacy and learning. “This is an important program because we have so many veterans here in San Jose, and we just don’t think there’s enough awareness yet of what they’re going through.”

A growing number of authors and artists who served in the military — and often did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan War zones — are trying to make sense of their experiences.

“There are a lot of vets now coming into the arts who are expressing the reality of what war really is,” Pinto said.

He served 20 years and retired as a major in 2002. He spent eight years as a Buddhist priest before enrolling at SJSU, where he recently graduated with a master’s degree in photography.

Pinto also has worked with other veterans through the San Francisco-based nonprofit Coming Home Project. Frustrated that the emotional toll of war often is overlooked, he began for searching for ways to bring attention to the plight of struggling vets. He settled on using G.I. Joes to illustrate their troubles.

Homeless Joe features a toy covered by a plastic trash bag, resting next to a chain-link fence. Suicide Joe has three grieving G.I. Joes in a cemetery. His latest photo is Joes Wait. A group of toys are situated along a wall, symbolizing the long wait times for VA benefits. Accompanying the portraits are the grim statistics that explain the pervasiveness of each issue.

“The general public might not be ready to see photos of veterans who are experiencing homelessness or PTSD,” Miraflor said. “But Mark uses the G.I Joes as an entryway to the issue, and I think that’s a really smart way to do it.”

Pinto has about 25 action figures in his collection. Most come from friends who have kids. (He also has one Spice Girl doll that he used in his Divorce Joe photo.)

“These are the same toys that I grew up playing with, romanticizing war as something heroic,” he said. “But I want to show what it’s like when they come back. I’ve worked with vets who have real problems. So while these G.I. Joes might not be me, they very much are people I know. In my mind, there’s a name for every one of these Joes.”

The other portion of his exhibit stems from something he learned during his own treatment for depression at the VA. At that time, 18 veterans a day were taking their lives at that time — a number that since has increased.

“I started thinking, ‘How do I bring that statistic alive?'” Pinto said. “I know several veterans who have committed suicide. Every veteran knows someone. But what does 22 a day really mean? I wanted to make that number real.”

Hanging toy parachute soldiers from the ceiling is a tangible representation of lives lost. “Everybody gets what’s happening at some level, but life goes on and nothing changes,” Pinto added. “I don’t have any illusions that this will make a difference. But I still feel compelled to make people pay attention.”

Photo: Bay Area News Group/MCT/Jim Gensheimer

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Robin Williams’ Death Makes Public The Usually Private Agony Of Suicide

By Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Anytime someone takes their own life, a circle of heartbroken family and friends are left struggling with a question of haunting simplicity: Why?

Now, in the wake of the news that comedian Robin Williams committed suicide at age 63, an entire world linked by social media has been left trying to process why a successful and widely admired man could become so overwhelmed by despair that he felt compelled to commit suicide.

Williams’ death undoubtedly has affected the public in such a profound way because of his ability to make us all feel as if we really knew him. And while mental health experts say the reasons for suicide are complex, the outpouring of raw emotion this week has made it easier to discuss a sensitive topic that has touched so many.

“More people die of suicide than in car accidents or of breast cancer each year,” said Julie Cerel, the board chair of the American Association of Suicidology. “Twice as many people die of suicides than homicides. But nobody talks about it. And whenever there is a loss close to us, we feel so alone, and that nobody wants to listen. So when somebody like this dies and is so beloved, it can bring up those feelings of our loss and get us talking.”

Starting late afternoon Monday, people have talked, Tweeted and posted on Facebook about little else. As the initial reports of Williams’ suicide at his Tiburon home surfaced, social media exploded — and in a deeply personal manner that went beyond our usual celebrity-driven culture.

“I know when I first heard, it was like ‘What?’ Who?” said Katrina Gay, spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “I think everybody felt that way, and suddenly the faucet was opened. It became very easy to add your pour to the mix because everybody has some story to add to this tragedy, whether it’s the struggles of someone we know or even yourself.”

Sharing, Gay added, is comforting because there is a mystery to mental illness in general, and suicide in particular.

“There’s so much that we don’t know, and there are no easy solutions,” Gay said. “And that can lead to fear.”

Added Cerel: “There is a natural question where people wonder, ‘If it can happen to someone like this, who else can it happen to?'”

Williams was an Oscar-winning actor with unique brand of frenetic comedy as well as brooding intensity in dramatic roles. He essentially provided the laugh track for Baby Boomers and their children. His charitable endeavors and his common-man nature earned him admiration as someone who didn’t act the part of a Hollywood star, as his life-long affinity for the Bay Area showed.

But while he was in the business of making others smile, he also was willing to reveal the pain in his life — talking openly about troubles with drugs and alcohol. He recently had been seeking treatment for depression and had been in a rehabilitation center.

“Being wealthy and accomplished doesn’t inoculate you from having addictions and other problems,” said Dr. Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor of psychiatry. “You can look like you have everything in the world going for you, and at the same time you can consider yourself unworthy inside, and none of that outside stuff matters. That’s hard to fathom, but it’s also true.”

In fact, other have-it-all celebrities have taken their lives over the years, including musician Kurt Cobain in 1994.

But while he was a one-of-a-kind entertainer, Williams now sadly shares commonalities with others who commit suicide. Men are three-to-four times more likely to take their own lives than women. Also, suicides among middle-aged men are rising.

Overall, it is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 39,518 suicides in 2011 — or an average of 108 a day.

“Ten years ago, we were talking about 30,000 suicides a year and now we’re at 39,000,” said John McIntosh, an Indiana University South Bend psychology professor and leading suicide researcher. “That’s a steep climb. It’s always a tragedy when it happens to someone like this who is so widely liked. But the reality is that it happens every day, and affects so many people on a smaller scale.”

McIntosh said suicides in the United States had been decreasing for about 15 years until the mid-2000s. Then they started to climb again, with many experts linking the rise to the economic recession.

Another troubling trend is that military veterans are among the highest at-risk groups with an estimated 22 vets a day committing suicide. A recently released survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that nearly half of those who have served in those conflicts know someone who has attempted suicide, and 40 percent know someone who has died.

There rarely is a single root cause for a suicide, experts say.

“Suicide is a multi-cause behavior,” McIntosh said. “That’s why it’s so difficult to prevent.”

What they also stress that there is assistance available for anyone contemplating thoughts of harming themselves. If something positive can come from this, it’s that Williams — a man who did so much good in his life — may now play a role in lessening the stigma toward mental health struggles.

“This is a cultural moment,” Stanford’s Humphreys said. “Celebrity has that ability to break through the din and make people pay attention. If it can be used wisely, more people can be helped.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255. The free, 24-hour service provides people with suicidal thoughts or those around them with support, information and local resources.

AFP Photo/Tiziana Fabi