Darlene Matthews, 57, paints a wooden tombstone for the “22 A Day” event aimed at bringing awareness to the number of suicides among military veterans. (Photograph/Anibal Santos)
Darlene Matthews comes to Saddleback College’s Veterans Art Project to help forget some of the troubles that plague her. Matthews is a former Women’s Army Corps veteran who deals with multiple disabilities. Since November, she has been homeless.
Matthews is one of the military veterans who is helping Ceramics Instructor, Steve Dilley prepare for the “22 A Day” suicide veterans awareness event taking place at Saddleback’s Fine Arts quad, Nov. 7 through Nov. 11.
“We are doing 22 gravestones with the number “22,” to bring awareness to vets that are coming home and are then committing suicide,” she said. “The problem isn’t getting resolved. It’s just pretty much being swept under the carpet.”
She says her situation is an example of failure on the part of Veterans Affairs and other local services treating veterans who have complex needs. One of the issues that she addresses is that services like the VA prefer to take in “easy” veterans whose needs are not too complex, while they leave others out on their own, according to Matthews.
She mentions the failure of one outreach program in which the veterans have to come to them in order to receive some kind of help.
“To explain how they are failing through outreach, is you have to go to them,” she said. “Right there, what does that tell you? They don’t get it at all.”
Matthews considers herself an example of a veteran with mental health issues that are being swept under the rug. Local services and Veterans Affairs have failed her in treating her complex needs. Matthews suffers from Post Dramatic Stress Disorder which she says comes from long ago.
“I can’t image the young veterans, the men and women who see some terrible horror and come back from their deployment and then are basically abandoned by the failing systems,” she said. “I totally understand why they do it [suicide], because I’m there almost everyday.”
Ceramics Instructor Steve Dilley and Darlene Matthews prepare tombstones for the “22 A Day.” (Photographer/Anibal Santos)
Matthews attempted at one time to take her own life, but failed in the attempt.
“I did try to die, but I was unsuccessful. I didn’t take enough pills before I left the housing program,” she said.
She admits that for some disabled veterans who are having doors closed on them, death seems to be the only solution.
“There are a lot of excuses made by people as to why it happens, but for the most part that’s the only way they can leave hell, which is to die,” Matthews said.
Obtaining affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges to disabled veterans, according to Matthews. She said the disabled vets are more at risk at facing discrimination than any other group.
“What happened in my situation is that they pulled the plug on the affordable housing in the complex I was in. The rent went up $300 a month,” she said. “Even someone with good income and good resources would have a hard time handling that, and I live below the poverty level. So it wasn’t fixable for me without the help of the county and they chose not to. When people see a homeless person on the street and in need, sometimes people can be very cruel and do not even realize they are dealing with a vet. For some, that is too much to bear, after what they have sacrificed for the people to have the freedom to be jerks.”
Mathews drives a great distance for VAP. Additionally, she takes photography courses at Orange Coast College. Her goal is to create a nonprofit program for veterans using art therapy.