SALT LAKE CITY — Tears well up in Brian Schiele's eyes when he talks about his time spent in the military.
The West Valley man isn't a combat veteran, but, for at least four years of his 21 years of service, Schiele was charged with keeping regular telephone contact with soldiers in nine states. He said he felt he was sometimes the only contact those men and women had with the world.
"One of the guys I would call, he was what we would call a 'high-speed soldier,' someone very proficient and good at what he does, and it was 1 or 2 in the afternoon and he was still in bed," Schiele said. "To this day, I hope and pray he's still alive."
Schiele is behind a resolution that passed during the 2014 Utah Legislature declaring July 3 as Call Your Military Hero Day in the state. He said a simple phone call expressing support and appreciation of their contribution could help make a difference in a veteran's life.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 22 military veterans take their own lives every day, and while a phone call isn't the solution to what Schiele calls "an epidemic of suicide," he said it is a step in the right direction "for people who need to be taken care of and looked after even more so when they aren't in uniform."
Cpl. Jerry L. Hawbaker, a combat engineer with the U.S. Army during the Gulf War, said he often gets asked whether he's in the military, "because I have short hair."
What happens next is usually interest in hearing about his experiences or a simple expression of an appreciation for his service.
"I love my country," said Hawbaker, 47, of Layton. "I love that I was responsible for keeping everyone safe and free."
He was "severely blown up" and thrown 125 feet by a rocket-propelled grenade, and while the resulting circumstances dramatically changed his life, Hawbaker said he'd "most definitely" do it all again — "even if I was 99 years old. I feel it's my patriotic duty for my country."
"People don't always realize the severity of what the veterans of the past, those who are currently serving and the men and women who will serve in the future go through for the country to survive free and keep peace," he said, leaning heavily on a cane he uses to get around. "It changed my life, but not for the worst."
Hawbaker, like many veterans who may have seen and experienced horrible things during times of war, also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said it helps him to talk about it, particularly with other veterans, but he enjoys sharing it all with younger generations.
"I don't hate the experience," Hawbaker said. "I wish, at times, I wasn't in the physical and mental shape I'm in, but I don't hate the experience."
Dave Varela, a certified peer specialist with the suicide prevention team of the Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255), said day-to-day coping skills become a lifeline for some veterans who range from being homeless, suffering PTSD and being suicidal.
"The issue needs addressing," he said, adding that discharge orders don't come with instructions on "deprogramming."
"You are not taught how to become a civilian again," said Varela, a 48-year-old Army veteran.
He said recovery is a lifelong process with various setbacks and rough situations that become easier when the veteran knows there is hope.
"Without my family, I think I'd still be in that darkness," Varela said.
"We can't take care of our veterans all by ourselves," said Jill Atwood, spokeswoman for the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City. "We rely on a caring community to do it as well."
Through Thursday, the hospital is hosting stations where international calls can be made to veterans via Skype. Atwood said she hopes the service, available for the first time, is used to express appreciation and support for "Utah's heroes."
Utah is home to more than 150,000 veterans, so it is relatively easy to find one to call on Thursday, Schiele said.
"We need to remember not only on July 3, but we need to express our love and gratitude each and every day for our veterans," said Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, who pushed for the idea of a local day of recognition for Utah soldiers.
"We owe a great debt of gratitude to the veterans of this country," Fisher said, adding that men and women, old and young and from all branches of military service deserve to be contacted.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the Fourth of July holiday provides "a great opportunity to connect with the men and women who sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy."
"I urge all Utahns to reach out and thank our veterans and those currently serving for their selfless service," Herbert said.
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