June 13, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Crosses at Ypsilanti church represent suicides by veterans, raise awareness for help

Sgt. Zachary Potter with his father, Timothy, and sister, Jordan. at the Taylor Sportsplex in 2008. Zack's suicide inspired friends to create the Veteran's Refuge Network. (Timothy Potter)

Timothy Potter blames an overwhelmed Veterans Affairs system in the death of his son.

Army Sgt. Zachary Potter of Dearborn struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder for nine years after serving two tours in Iraq. He was in and out of VA hospitals in Tennessee and Michigan.

Frustrated by delays for medical help, he took his life Jan. 9. He was 32.

“I just really feel like the military let him down,” said Timothy Potter, also of Dearborn. “He was out there looking for help.”

Zachary Potter’s death prompted close friend Andrew Turner, his wife, Jamie, and friend Laura Chirio to create the Veteran’s Refuge Network to raise awareness of veteran suicides and remove any stigma associated with PTSD.

This month, as part of PTSD Awareness Month, the organization launched a “660 White Crosses” awareness campaign on the campus of Pineview Church in Ypsilanti. Volunteers are planting 22 wooden crosses each day. The crosses represent the estimated 22 veterans of all ages who commit suicide each day, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Turner said the group was inspired to raise awareness after losing Zack and two other veteran friends to suicide.

“It wasn’t something we were aware of until we were touched by it,” said Turner, who was deployed with Potter in 2005. “We want to make people aware that it’s a problem so we can start getting veterans the help they need.”

The group has planted 286 crosses so far in a project that culminates at 7 p.m. June 30, when the last crosses will be installed.

“They’re not just crosses; they each actually represent somebody’s life,” Turner said. “Twenty-two people are going to commit suicide today, and 22 more people are going to commit suicide tomorrow.”

Besides their awareness efforts, the Veteran’s Refuge Network also helps veterans navigate an often confusing web of resources.

“In the long term, we want to be a primary resource for (veterans),” Turner said. “But in the short term we want to get them connected to the resources that are already available.”

It is the type of extra help Potter needed, his father said.

“When Zack was having a lot of problems, he was running into a lot of brick walls.”

Potter said his son tried for more than a year to get into a PTSD treatment program at a VA hospital in Chicago. He finally was told to expect a call about admittance in early January of this year. But when that call came, he was told the only person who could handle his case would be on vacation for another two weeks.

One week after that call, Zack Potter committed suicide.

“The VA doesn’t have enough money and services to help all these men and women that are coming back,” Potter said. “Veterans don’t need any more stress. They have enough stress returning from war.”

Turner agreed.

“Even if the VA worked like clockwork, there are so many vets that need help,” he said. “Organizations like ours are needed to make sure no one is falling through the cracks.”

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Andrew Turner, left, and Luke Frawley watch as Morgan Potter, one of ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)