Silhouette Project shines light on veteran suicides

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Veteran Willie Danforth, left, of Auburn looks on as Penny Douphinett is comforted by veteran David Armontrout, who does not know her, after she’s overcome with emotion while looking at the silhouette of her son, Benjamin Demers of Auburn. His silhouette is one of 22 that represents the number of veterans that commit suicide every day. They were on display at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College Monday afternoon during the unveiling of “The Silhouette Project” by Linda Lavoie.

LEWISTON — Linda Lavoie admits she probably made a lot of people feel uncomfortable. But how else was she going to get the message out?

Her message: An average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.

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Lavoie’s son, Dustin Hadfield, a graduate of Poland High School, was one of the 22 who died Dec. 11, 2014. At age 26, two years after he left the U.S. Air Force, he committed suicide at Thorncrag Nature Sanctuary in Lewiston.

Lavoie said she was shocked when she learned the high rate of suicide among veterans following her son’s death. 

“Right after I lost him, I’m like, ‘Why did I not know this?'” Lavoie said. “Then I felt compelled to tell other people. But nobody likes to talk about suicide.”

More than 100 people, though, were open to talk about veteran suicide Monday when the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College hosted a reception for the exhibit “The Silhouette Project,” created by Lavoie, to honor and bring awareness to the issue.

“I can’t thank Linda enough because she hit it right on the head,” Gov. Paul LePage said during his keynote remarks. “We have to talk about this. We have to talk about suicide. It’s not fun, not pleasant, but it needs to be done because we have to save lives.”

The exhibit consists of 22 life-sized silhouettes, most of which are saluting, to represent the number of veterans lost to suicide every day. Each silhouette has the name, photo and branch of service of a veteran who committed suicide.

Her son Dustin’s name is listed on one of the silhouettes.

Lavoie sought the advice of many as she learned of the extent of the issue and how she could help make a difference. Her desire was to help another family avoid what happened to hers.

“Suicide is so hard,” Lavoie said. “I’ve talked to families that have family members who will insist that their child was murdered or it was an accident. It was anything but because they felt ashamed.

“I can’t deny it,” she said. “I’m not doing anyone any good by covering it up and saying something else happened. I’m thinking if someone else had told me, that maybe I would have done things a little different. Could I have saved him, I don’t know. ‘What ifs’ are sometimes hard to fight. But maybe I can help someone else.”

She settled on creating a project to show what 22 people looked like. She first thought of using pairs of combat boots after learning of a similar display on the steps of a capitol in another state.

Lavoie, though, wanted something with more visual impact that would represent people. A cluster of 22 life-sized silhouettes does just that.

Dustin Hadfield joined the Air Force after high school and served six years. Lavoie said she was proud to display in the window of her home a blue star that indicates a family member is an active member of the military.

She recalls being petrified when Dustin called to tell her he was being deployed to Afghanistan, fearing she might have to switch the blue star for a gold star. But Dustin left the service in 2012 and returned home.

“When he came home, I was relieved,” Lavoie said. “The danger had passed. He was home. He was safe — or so I thought.”

Lavoie said she did not know the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and admitted she never considered that her son could be suffering from it.

“Most of the time, Dustin was fine,” Lavoie said. “The same happy-go-lucky kid he’d always been. Laughing and joking as he always had. Other times, he was different. He almost seemed lost. His drinking increased, and he occasionally had sudden outburst of anger. I thought he was just adjusting to life outside the military.”

Two years later, Dustin was dead.

Speakers during Monday’s reception talked about the importance of reaching out if a veteran appears to be having some difficulty. They stressed the important services available at the Lewiston Vet Center on Westminster Street.

“If you see somebody that you even think, just the slightest bit, is calling for help, call the Vet Center,” Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said. “They have people that will come out. They will talk to you. They will talk to the veterans. I will tell you right now — they will help them.”

In his remarks, LePage said 18 percent of suicides in the United States were committed by veterans. Adria Horn, the director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, added emphasis to LePage’s number by saying the 18 percent is being committed by one-10th of 1 percent of the U.S. population represented by veterans. 

Lavoie was greeted by countless veterans and other well-wishers at LAC following the reception, thanking her for bringing the issue of veteran suicide into the open.

“I’m blown away,” Lavoie said. “This is incredible. This is more than I ever dreamed of. This is exactly what this project is meant to do.”

ssherlock@sunjournal.com

Penny Douphinett reacts after receiving a pin by Linda Lavoie during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for “The Silhouette Project” on Monday afternoon at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. The project, by Lavoie, represents the number of veterans who commit suicide every day. Both women’s sons were veterans who committed suicide.

Penny Douphinett wipes away a tear while looking at the silhouette of her son, Benjamin Demers of Auburn, one of 22 that represents the number of veterans that commit suicide every day. They were on display at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College Monday afternoon during the unveiling of the “The Silhouette Project” by Linda Lavoie.

First lady Ann LePage, left, listens to Gov. Paul LePage address a large gathering at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College in Lewiston Monday during the unveiling of “The Silhouette Project” by Linda Lavoie.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage addresses a crowd gathered at Monday afternoon’s unveiling of The Silhouette Project in Lewiston.

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