BROKEN ARROW — Before his son left for the Army, Michael D. Coon talked to him about the new relationships he would be making.
“I told him it was going to be different than what it was like with his high school buddies,” said Coon, an Army veteran himself.
“He didn’t get it then. You really can’t until you’ve experienced it.”
But the “special strong bond” that his late son would form with his comrades in arms would come at a high cost, Coon added.
It’s partly because of it that Staff Sgt. Michael K. Coon would have such a hard time coping with losing friends in battle.
So hard a time that — combined with PTSD and other factors — eventually, he couldn’t bear the burden any longer. Since losing his son to suicide in 2015, Michael D. Coon has devoted himself to raising awareness about the issue of veteran suicides. And while the mission will never end for him, it’s about to mark a major milestone.
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Thanks in large part to Coon’s efforts, the Mission 22 War at Home national memorial, previously based in Virginia, is now in Broken Arrow.
In fact, the city’s Veterans Park, 1111 S. Main St., will be its permanent home.
The memorial, the only one of its kind in the world, recognizes the sacrifices of veterans who die by suicide while battling PTSD or other service-related conditions.
It consists of 20 steel “silhouettes” of actual veterans from different military branches who have died by suicide, including one of Michael K. Coon.
A formal dedication event is set for June 11.
“My mission is to keep anymore of these (suicides) from happening,” Coon said. “Why we want this here is so we can get the word out.”
Total cost of the project, he said, is around $500,000, with funding provided by Mission 22, the city of Broken Arrow and Coon’s tribe, the Muscogee Nation.
The silhouettes — massive at over 10 feet tall and weighing 1,000 pounds each — stand side by side, forming a watchful perimeter at the rear of the park.
A brick walkway with memorial benches runs in front of them.
A pond and treeline serve as a backdrop, adding to the serenity of the setting.
Coon first got involved with Mission 22, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting veteran suicides, after his son’s death.
He contributed a photo of his son toward the creation of the memorial silhouette.
“They saw how much passion I had for veterans,” he said, adding that he was asked to be the memorial’s “guardian” and travel with it, and then to find it a permanent home.
Coon said the city of Broken Arrow welcomed it with open arms.
‘Good guys don’t always win’
Coon has spoken around the country, including with many families who have lost a veteran to suicide.
He said sometimes they have a hard time understanding why it happened and are unsure if they should feel proud of their veteran.
Coon tries to help them think differently. And to that end, he said, the memorial makes a statement.
He said, “These men and women didn’t go AWOL. They didn’t quit. They served honorably, they finished their tour and everything. But sometimes it’s too much. They’ve seen a lot of battle.”
“The good guys don’t always win,” Coon added. “And that includes the war at home.”
Coon talks about his own son as an example.
A 2000 Jenks High School graduate, Michael K. Coon was 33 at the time of his death.
It followed 10 years of distinguished military service, including tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, and various decorations as a squad leader.
Coon, who is buried at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, represented the third generation of his family to serve. In addition to his father, his late grandfather, Phillip Coon, was a decorated World War II veteran and former prisoner of war.
“My son was in 10 years and lost a lot of his buddies,” Coon said. “That’s what started his alcohol and sleeplessness and PTSD.”
To families of war veterans, Coon urges: “You’d have to walk in their shoes to see how they felt. We don’t know what they endured overseas. There are things that are just tearing them up.”
The families of the other veterans depicted in the memorial who can make the trip will be at the event in June, he said.
But the memorial will also serve as a place for all families who have lost a veteran to suicide, Coon said.
“We want to let them know that they have a place here,” he said.
“They don’t have to be ashamed. They can come here, feel a sense of peace and know that their son or daughter is also part of these 20. Their spirit is with these 20.”