They can be seen wearing dark green and black T-shirts with upside down American flags and confidently riding shark trikes painted with a mouth full of teeth through the streets of Las Vegas.
The men and women who make up this group are not a rebellious biker gang but a group of veterans supporting one another from the depression and trauma that can follow after serving.
“Having the flag upside down signals a sign of distress,” said Peter Guidry, co-founder of Forgotten Not Gone. “It’s been reported that every day, 22 veterans commit suicide, with Nevada being the highest in the nation. Las Vegas is ground zero for veterans because it’s very cheap to do destructive things, and it’s easy to take it to the next level.”
Forgotten Not Gone is a nonprofit organization in North Las Vegas dedicated to helping save veterans and their families from the destruction of suicide.
Husband and wife Peter and Kelisiha Guidry created the nonprofit after dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Both veterans attempted to commit suicide and were hospitalized after serving in the U.S. Air Force for more than six years.
“I kept going from job to job, and I would get physically hurt at every job,” Peter said. “My back locks up, my knees snap into place, and here I am trying to keep a job. I started throwing up blood from the medicine I was taking. I lost 40 pounds in six months, and one day I just had enough.”
Now their mission is to get veterans physically active and interacting with society.
“Our nonprofit is different from others because it was started by veterans for veterans,” Peter said. “We’re just two vets who never left our posts.”
One of the most popular tools the nonprofit uses is the special recumbent trike.
Peter was introduced to trikes after going to a treatment center in Northern California.
After experiencing firsthand the difference that a trike made in his recovery, Peter took out a personal loan and bought two trikes to start the nonprofit.
“Before he rode, he couldn’t sleep through the night, he had a lot of anxiety, and he stuttered really bad,” Kelisiha said. “When people would approach him, he would become very combative and standoffish. After he rode, he would actually sleep through the night. He started to become the person that I married.”
The group participated in the Las Vegas Veterans Day parade in 2013 and has since grown in size and trikes, including trikes for children.
Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, that figure is based on 21 states from 1999 through 2011 and did not include California, Texas and Illinois, among others.
The suicide rate is thought to be higher. Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000, according to a 2013 report by News21, an investigative multimedia program for journalism students.
“After serving for almost 20 years, I became depressed and suicidal, but I held it all,” said Michael McCracken, Air Force and Army veteran. “When you talk about your mental health in the military, the first thing they want to do is give you meds. But that doesn’t help you; it just masks the pain.”
“Oxycodone is like candy,” Peter added.
Many veterans dealing with mental illness are also reluctant to talk about their issues to health professionals for fear of being locked up in the psychiatric ward, the founders said.
There are more than 200,000 veterans in Las Vegas, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website, va.gov.
“People who are getting out of basic training can also deal with PTSD because they go through some of the most stressful situations on the planet,” said Lee Gilford, Marine and Coast Guard veteran. “The military is designed to break people down and then rebuild them back up. Mental illness affects many people more than anyone likes to admit.”
For some vets, the pain and immobility from injury can cause them to feel isolated and confined. The nonprofit uses the trikes to give them their mobility and independence back, Peter said.
“Our trikes with electric assist allow veterans to get out of the house and escape the isolation that physical pain causes,” Peter said. “I feel like I’m serving this country again, but I no longer have to be violent to do so.”
The nonprofit hopes to start various PTSD support groups and offer alternative therapy to veterans in the future.
“I’ve heard a number of soldiers say that they’d be better off if they were killed at war because at their funerals they’ll say ‘Gone but not forgotten,’ ” Peter said. “I say I’m still here, but they forgot about us veterans because we already served our purpose. We’re treated like thugs, and our pain is masked with pills.”
“They created us into monsters; now we need help becoming human,” Kelisiha said. “This is our form of therapy.”
For more information or to donate, visit forgottennotgone.org or call 702-706-5777.
To reach North View reporter Sandy Lopez, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-4686. Find her on Twitter: @JournalismSandy.