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Trail of Tears - One Soldier's Trek to Take Awareness to a Taboo Topic 
 
 

BOSTON Sgt. Michael Struppa, 182nd Area Support Medical Company, marches 10 miles through Newton into Boston while carrying a 35 pound first-aid bag in preparation for his Boston Marathon march, here, Dec. 17.  Struppa carries the bag so that he may bring awareness to suicide throughout the course of the marathon.

 

BOSTON Sgt. Michael Struppa, 182nd Area Support Medical Company, uses a leg press during one of his weekly strength training workouts in preparation for the Boston Marathon, here, Dec. 28.  Struppa is marching the Boston Marathon as a form of suicide awareness. 

BOSTON Sgt. Michael Struppa, 182nd Area Support Medical Company, does curls in order to prepare himself physically for the Boston Marathon, here, Dec. 28.  Struppa is marching the Boston Marathon in memory of his father and uncle, both of whom committed suicide in the last three years.  He hopes to bring awareness to suicide and the Samaritans, an organization that helped him through the troubles of his loss. 

(U.S. Army photos by Sgt. Jeremiah J. Clark, Massachusetts Army National Guard Public Affairs)

By U.S. Army Sgt. Jeremiah J. Clark, Massachusetts National Guard Public Affairs  
 

MILFORD, Mass. “It took a few years for the heartbreak and tears to slow down, they have never really stopped. Through counseling at the Veterans’ Affairs and support groups from the Samaritans I was able to ease the pain,” he said.

Suicide is a permanent solution to an often temporary problem, or so it’s said.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that approximately 36,035 suicide deaths were reported in 2008.  That’s 11.8 suicides for every 100,000 people, putting it in the top ten leading causes of death.

 “The last time I saw him was right after my Nonna died,” Sgt. Michael Salvatore Struppa continued, solemnly. “I saw him at the funeral and asked how he was doing.”

Struppa has a large family, with three sisters, his mother and his niece for immediate family.  His Nonna, or grandmother in Italian, was his uncle and father’s mother.

“He smiled and told me he was doing ok.  I told him we had to get together soon and just relax.  Well, between work and conflicting schedules I never got the opportunity to spend time with my uncle,” he said.

In July of 2009 the Struppa family received awful news, that his uncle, Anthony, had committed suicide. 

Anthony Struppa, Michael’s uncle, had made several attempts at ending his life before finally succeeding, said Struppa.

No person is prepared for the loss of a close family member to suicide, but then again who is prepared for the loss of any family member before their time.

“Just when I had finally been able to deal with the loss and realize that my uncle’s suicide wasn’t my fault, tragedy struck,” Struppa said.

However as tough as it is to lose one person, it is compounded when another is lost.

In February 2011, while Struppa was still deployed, his father Salvatore, the brother of his late uncle Anthony, killed himself. It was a sudden and unexpected event, said Struppa. It hurt more than any physical pain he had ever felt before.

“I was still deployed in Kuwait with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 126 Aviation Brigade,” recounted Struppa.  “We were about 90 days away from coming home.  It was about 6 p.m. local time.  I remember sitting in my hooch with my roommates playing video games.  1st Sgt. Mimmo came to our door and said that I had a Red Cross message.”

This was Struppa’s fourth deployment; he spent time in Bosnia, Korea and Iraq prior to going to Kuwait.  Also, he spent time in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and has gone on the Massachusetts National Guard Regional Cooperation group twice, in 2009 and 2011.

“Instantly I started going through all the bad things that could have happened, but on the long walk to our operations building, I tried to calm myself down,” Struppa said.

“I will never forget the dread when I walked in and saw Spc. Marrero, the chaplain’s assistant, and Capt. Frea, Public Affairs Officer, standing with their heads down,” said Struppa. “I knew right then that whatever message I had received was not good.”

Struppa’s instincts were correct.

“They informed me that my father had hung himself at work and he had been hanging for approximately 30 minutes before he was cut down,” said Struppa, a combat medic with the 182nd Area Support Medical Company, 126th Brigade Support Battalion, Massachusetts Army National Guard, and works as a civilian paramedic with American Medical Response.

He knew the prognosis was not good.

“It felt like someone hit me in the stomach with a sledgehammer and ripped out my heart at the same time,” said Struppa.  “I can remember cussing and crying at the same time.”

Struppa called home to get more details.

“When I finally connected with my mother, she had told me that my father was on life support and he was not doing very well,” he said.  “It was like the worst nightmare you could ever imagine coming true.  I felt like it really was a bad dream that no one could wake me up from.”

Struppa was allowed to fly home.

“Once I got through the wake, funeral and had some time with my family, I decided I needed to finish my tour in Kuwait,” said Struppa. “Because of my father and other personal relationship issues, I battled sleepless nights and thoughts of what could have been if I had talked to my father more.”

Sometimes, it’s not easy to recognize warning signs and sometimes there are no signs at all. 

“My father showed no signs of depression when I talked to him on the phone, or through Skype,” Struppa said.

The last time Struppa saw his father Salvatore was in September, when his father held him and told him to be safe.  Struppa had talked to his father right before Christmas and once more on February 9, two days before his father committed suicide. 

“His loss has left a gaping hole that no one will ever fill.  The months following his and my uncle’s deaths have been long and cold.  I drive on through the pain with the help of friends, family and support services like the VA and Samaritans.   They have helped me realize that as tragic as suicide is, it is not my fault,” said Struppa.

Struppa doesn’t blame himself for his father taking his own life, but wonders if he had talked to his father and uncle more if they might still be here.

“If I had let them know that I was a shoulder to lean on, would that keep them from killing themselves?” said Struppa. “I guess I will never know, but sometimes on the low days, it's hard not to wonder what if.”

Instead of lying down and giving into despair Struppa decided to give back. 

“I am marching the Boston Marathon to raise money for the Samaritans of Massachusetts,” said Struppa.

The Samaritans, Inc, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the incidence of suicide in Greater Boston and Metrowest, is raising awareness and funds for the Samaritans team.

Also, the Samaritans provide services for survivors of those who have committed suicide. 

Furthermore, with the help of Brendan Mcniff, the General Manager of American Medical Response, and Garrett Owen of the Samaritans, the logistics of the event are easier on Struppa.

“If it wasn’t for those two companies, this would still be a dream instead of a reality,” said Struppa.

The Samaritans team will be running the marathon while Struppa will be marching it, while in his Army Combat Uniform.

“I will be participating in a marathon training group provided by the Samaritans.  It is a unique situation since I am going to ruck it with a 35 pound aide bag rather than running it,” said Struppa.

Struppa is wearing the uniform to bring awareness to military suicide awareness.

“I am wearing my uniform to show people in the service that it is ok to get help if you are depressed.  Many people in the service may feel like they have to remain quiet about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and feeling suicidal.  I want to prove them wrong and show them that there are options other than suicide,” said Struppa, who has been a member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard for 10 years, and prior to that he was Active Duty for four years. 

“The 35 pound aid bag symbolizes the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. It is a weight that some may feel they have to burden alone,” continued Struppa.

To Struppa, the whole event is symbolic, symbolic of life and the struggles that servicemembers and non-servicemembers go through especially when dealing with depression.

“The 26.2 miles represents the long road of life that lays ahead, the marathon like life may have many ups and downs. Sometimes it may seem impossible to get through alone.  The spectators are probably the only thing that will help me complete this task. The people cheering for the runners on the day of the marathon represent the help that groups like the Samaritans offer with their help line and other services. Those people cheering every step of the way will show me that no matter how far I travel, or how heavy the weight of the world is, I, like anyone, can make it through,” said Struppa, who grew up in East Boston and is now a resident of Medford, Mass.

Even wearing his uniform is symbolic for Struppa.  He sees it as just another extension of his commitment to the message of suicide prevention.

“The uniform is to represent the Armed forces of the USA. The suicide rate in the military has been unacceptable. Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen need to know that the help is out there,” said Struppa. “No one should be ashamed to seek help for depression. I got the help I needed and I am glad I did.”

How does one come up with such a grand plan to support Suicide Prevention?  Perseverance.

“I got the idea in February, after my dad committed suicide.  I went back to Kuwait and decided that I needed to do something positive to help ease the pain of his loss.  I know the military states that we should get the help if we are depressed, but sometimes it feels like you can’t go to them for help.  I know that rather than risk getting kicked out, people will try to shoulder the burden of this disease by themselves,” said Struppa.

It’s important to know that you can go to people for help, whether it is the military or the Samaritans.

“By raising money for the Samaritans I want to show people that there will always be help out there and not give up.  Also, I am not the most physically fit guy out there so I want to show everyone that with a little motivation and great people to support you, anything is possible,” said Struppa.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that depression is serious.  No one is alone in that battle.

“No matter how lonely your road in life may seem there are people, even strangers, who care about you.  I want to say that if you are depressed and feel like there isn’t hope; get the help you need.  There are tons of resources out there for you.  Suicide is not the answer,” said Struppa.

Struppa knows firsthand the struggle involved with the loss due to suicide.

“Whatever pain you are feeling can be relieved whether you believe it or not.  Think about your family and how it will affect them.  I can tell you personally; that I would rather have my father here, and deal with whatever personal issues he may have had,” said Struppa. 

Giving up on life hurts the ones you leave behind.

“The problems you think go away when you die are just transferred to those who you leave behind.  You’re going to miss out on so much by killing yourself, your children growing, your family holidays and much, much more.  Even if you think the opposite way, there is someone who cares for you and would miss you if you were gone,” said Struppa.

So it’s important that you look for support.

“If you’re down, talk,” said Struppa. “I hope that by doing the marathon and bringing depression and suicide into the light, we can save a person, or that person’s family from going through the pain of loss that my family has had to endure twice.”

 

For more information on the Samaritans’ cause, please visit the below site. Every little bit helps to ensure that someone will be there to answer the call for help before it is too late.

http://www.crowdrise.com/samaritansmarathonteam/fundraiser/michaelstruppa

12/29/2011