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Tracy Frank, Published June 01 2010

Fighting a silent war

Suicide is killing more soldiers than actual combat, Dan Stenvold, North Dakota Vietnam Veterans of America president, told spectators at a Memorial Day ceremony Monday at Riverside Cemetery in Fargo.

He urged everyone to remember the veterans who took their own lives due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Soldiers are using guns, ropes, drugs, knives, motorcycles, cops to finish the task. They need our help, and they need it now,” Stenvold said before introducing Spc. 4th Class Dan Olson, who bicycled across North Dakota to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Olson started his Courage Carries On ride May 22, motivated by Joe Biel, his friend and fellow North Dakota National Guard veteran who killed himself in April 2007 after his second deployment in Iraq.

Olson said he has been biking since 2007 as a way to relieve stress, so the courage ride seemed like a good fit for raising awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t want to quit,” he said. “I want to go across the whole country.”

Olson’s courage ride ended in Moorhead on Monday, but he is trying to line up sponsorship to keep it going.

Jim Deremo, American Legion Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Committee chairman, escorted Olson across the state.

“After you’ve been through what Dan has been through, a bike ride across the state is nothing,” Deremo said. “If we are able to save somebody from committing suicide and let people know there’s help available for post-traumatic stress disorder, our ride across the state will have been a success.”

Stenvold also asked spectators at the ceremony to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day as a day to remember the sacrifices veterans have made for their country, not as a chance to head to the lakes or a weekend for high school graduations.

“Can someone please tell me why our nation has turned this into a national graduation weekend?” Stenvold asked. “This is our weekend, when those of us who have survived being in harm’s way can pay tribute to our brothers and sisters who have made the ultimate sacrifice. School board members and administrators, please leave this weekend alone; leave it for us.”

Shots from a ceremonial firing squad and the solemn sound of taps rang out after veterans placed wreaths on and near a white cross at the head of a flag-draped casket meant to represent fallen soldiers, and after members of the Ladies Auxiliaries of the United Patriotic Bodies set flowers on and near the casket.

“With over 4,500 Americans dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enduring relevance of Memorial Day is clearly evident,” said Kathy Handy, commander of AMVETS Post 7 in Fargo. “With these two wars under way, the public has no excuse not to remember.”

While the Red River Valley Veterans Concert Band played Battle Hymn of the Republic, a P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter aircraft, flew overhead in a salute to veterans.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526