Sergeant Gonzalo Duran spent eight years of his life in a uniform as a U.S. Marine, but he spent the evening of Monday, December 5 dressed as Santa Claus.
In front of a small crowd of young children and their parents at Confetti Kids on Westchester Avenue, Duran discussed a very serious topic: veteran suicides.
After watching a 60 Minutes piece about Clay Hunt, a Navy Seal who committed suicide after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Duran told the younsters that soldiers like Hunt often have scars that can’t be seen.
“His feelings were bad, thinking about what happened, and when he took his life, it was very sad to everyone because they wanted to help him,” he told them.
Duran said he wanted the children to know veterans can be old or young, and can have more visible injuries than Hunt did, such as missing limbs.
The December 5 program, 22 Hugs A Day, is aimed at helping veterans to open up and let their defenses down.
He gave each child a toy collected during a holiday toy drive and asked for just a hug in return.
The organization’s name is a reference to the 22 suicides a day committed by U.S. military veterans.
The program was co-sponsored by the Bronx Veterans Chamber of Commerce.
“The point is for tough guys like me to relax and bring our defenses down, because all we know is how to do things quick and in a hurry without hesitation, and it’s hard to get out of that mentality later on in life.”
Duran said he had to leave the military due to a lung condition caused by the burn pits use by soldiers in Iraq.
He said transitioning back to civilian life was rough, but that his struggles help lay the foundation for Devil Dog USA.
Duran has a long history of hosting youth programs though the Devil Dog organization, including tennis, scuba and golf programs.
He also was recently awarded a Father of the Year award by the Bronx Fatherhood Coalition, and is now working to add educational programs like the 22 Hugs event to his schedule.
While millions were being spent on programs to help veterans, Duran said veteran suicide rates are not dropping.
“Instead of silly things like the mannequin challenge going viral, this issue should be going viral,” he said.
Duran was joined by other veterans friends at the event, including U.S. Army 1st Sergeant First Class John Perez.
Perez, 49, said he was working to put together a hotline for veterans experiencing psychological issues.
“There has always been a spike of suicides among veterans during the holidays, it is a trigger for something that happened previously,” Perez said.
Perez said there are many factors as to why suicide rates persist, such as the way veterans are treated by the Veterans Administration.
“We know, statistically, that the suicide rate has increased since new medications have been given out so there is a connection – it’s something you don’t hear in the media but guys on the inside know,” he said.