HOOPER — Mark Vigil wants the memories of how his son lived his life to outweigh the thoughts of how it ended.
Vigil’s son Miles died by suicide in late 2010 after struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder that followed a tour of duty with the Army in Afghanistan. Since his son’s death, Vigil has been on a crusade to raise both money and awareness for military-induced PTSD, suicide and veterans in general.
According to a Department of Veterans Affairs 2012 report on suicide in the military, veterans comprised more than 22 percent of all suicides in the United States between fiscal years 2009 and 2012.
The report used data from only 21 states and noted that the “prevalence estimate is assumed to be constant across all U.S. states.” Based on these numbers, the reports says, an estimated 22 veterans died from suicide each day during the time the research was conducted.
Vigil says the late November morning his 28-year-old son became a part of those horrible statistics will haunt him forever, but after many dark hours, he’s found a way to honor the kid whom he simply describes as “one of a kind.”
After playing football at both Clearfield High School and Southern Utah University, Miles enlisted in the Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“When 9/11 went down, it really upset him,” Vigil says. “He felt like he had to do something.”
Soon after enlisting, Miles was stationed in Fort Drum, New York, with a unit called the 10th Mountain Division. He ultimately deployed to Afghanistan and served a combat tour as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“He served honorably and he was heroic in every sense of the word,” Vigil says today. “But when he came back from Afghanistan, he didn’t re-enlist. He just felt like he didn’t have any more in him.”
Vigil said his son struggled upon his return from combat, but managed to move on with his life.
“It’s hard to explain, but he was just a different kid when he came back,” Vigil said. “His war experience really hurt him. He had a hard time adjusting, but he kept moving forward.”
After his military service, Miles, though struggling with PTSD, managed to keep his activity level extremely high. He went to school at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. He took up jiu jitsu, completed firefighter training at Davis Applied Technology College and began fly-fishing — a new passion that rivaled his love of football. All of these new endeavors and activities took place within a few years after he left the Army.
This is why, Vigil says, the news of his son’s death came as such a shock.
“For him to take his own life — I just couldn’t fathom it,” Vigil said. “I really couldn’t believe it.”
Vigil said Miles’s suicide left him feeling empty and alone for a long time. But after some serious introspection, soul-searching and what he describes as a “prompting from beyond” from Miles, Vigil decided to dedicate his life to veterans and PTSD. And he’s using his son’s name and memory to help the cause.
Vigil’s nonprofit “Miles of Hope, Inc.” raises money by asking people, businesses and organizations to participate in Vigil’s “Penny Per” program. Vigil said his Penny Per program is simple, but effective. Participating businesses take one cent from whatever business transaction they choose and give it to the program.
For example, Vigil says, Steiny’s Family Sports Grill in Ogden donates a penny to Miles of Hope for every beer it sells. Local golf courses have donated a penny per every player round they get during a particular year.
“Everybody can afford a penny,” Vigil says. “And it all adds up.”
Vigil said money taken in by Miles of Hope goes to Labs For Liberty, another nonprofit in Morgan that provides service dogs for American veterans suffering from PTSD, or to Clear Path for Veterans, an upstate-New York-based nonprofit that partners with the VA and works to provide reintegration services for veterans suffering from PTSD, anxiety, physical and mental disabilities, pain and culture shock.
With the help of multiple hours of hard labor from Hooper resident Beaver Prince, Vigil is now trying to finish what he says will serve as the ultimate marketing tool for his fledgling organization.
Prince is in the beginning stages of rebuilding a 1977 CJ-5 Jeep, which Vigil says will be displayed at community events and entered in local parades to give Miles of Hope more visibility.
Vigil and Prince have already burned through about three grand working on the Jeep and buying parts for it and are looking for some help from the community to finish the project. They’ve created a GoFundMe account, which can be found at gofundme.com/sckzqk.
Prince, a Purple Heart recipient from his combat duty in Vietnam, says working with Vigil on the truck has been therapeutic for both of them and has also provided him a quick education on PTSD.
“I went to Vietnam, but I really didn’t know much about PTSD,” Prince said. “It was called ‘shell shock’ in my day. But it’s a lot more serious than that and we need to put as much attention on it as we can. There are a lot of people out there hurting.”
The pair hopes to have the Jeep finished to put it in Ogden’s annual Veterans Day Parade, which usually takes place in November.
“There’s never been a PTSD float in the parade,” Prince said. “There will be this year.”
As he admired the work Prince has done so far to the Jeep that will market his organization and help forward his son’s legacy, Vigil offered some advice to those suffering from PTSD or feeling suicidal.
“It’s important to reach out, to get help,” he said. “People need to know that they aren’t alone. We all go through struggles, but taking your life won’t solve anything. My family and I are still dealing with the repercussions of Miles’s death. Life is worth living.”
For more information on Miles of Hope, Inc. contact Vigil at firstname.lastname@example.org.