D’Angelo Shaw, general manager of the Planet Fitness center in Statesboro, credits the company with helping him find his way back to stable civilian life and leadership after he experienced PTSD and near-homelessness as an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Now he has partnered with Fight the War Within Foundation, founded in the Savannah area in 2020, in its efforts to offer human connectedness and information on resources to veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues and prevent suicides. Shaw, who is now a Statesboro resident, and James Collins, a Fight the War Within Foundation board member from Guyton, led a brief dedication ceremony for a Wall of Heroes at the Planet Fitness club Thursday morning.
The first 10 name tapes, patches with only last names like those worn on combat uniforms, were placed on a special board mounted on the wall in honor of 10 veterans who have, as Shaw put it, “lost their internal battles.” Some but not all of those named had ties to eastern Georgia.
This gesture is meant to diminish the stigma while also honoring individuals who served their nation and communities but, because of those struggles, lost their lives, usually by suicide. The board may also be used for remembrances of civilian public safety personnel lost to similar struggles.
“We wanted to create a wall of remembrances just so they are recognized and remembered no matter what background they may have, whether it be the police officer, EMT, fire department, military, from all armed forces groups,” Shaw said. “We want to make sure that all of those personnel are remembered.”
’22 a day’
For the Fight the War Within Foundation, the main mission is counteracting what has long been called a suicide epidemic among United States military veterans.
“We connect those who are struggling with their internal battles to mental health resources to eradicate the 22-a-day epidemic,” Collins said.
Internet searches reveal that slogans and programs citing “22 a day” as the rate of suicides among veterans, sometimes with current military personnel also included, date back to at least 2015.
The average daily number of suicides among veterans shown in annual Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention reports is a little lower. The VA reports also include veterans of all ages, not just those who served in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2005, the number of suicide deaths among veterans was highest in 2018, when there were 6,435 nationwide, or an average of 17.6 a day, according to these reports. In 2019, there and 6,261 suicides among veterans, or 17.2 a day. But the suicide rate remains significantly higher among veterans than non-veterans during a period when the rate in the general population has been increasing.
“We’re trying to lower those numbers by connecting veterans and local heroes to resources for those that are in need,” Shaw said.
Collins noted that Fight the War Within Foundation does not, itself, provided counseling.
“Our main goal is … to connect people who are hurting or in need to mental health resources,” he said. “We aren’t counselors ourselves. None of us are clinically trained. We connect the resources and connect the dots to get them the help that they need.”
The foundation, Collins said, has the support of several other organizations with a presence in the area, including Through Tragedy Comes Light and Man 22 Suicide Awareness, which were first to use the name tapes in memorials. He and others wear the names on memorial vests. Now, Planet Fitness’ Statesboro club is also a partner in the effort.
D’Angelo Shaw has a PTSD recovery story of his own to tell. Originally from Monroe, Louisiana, he served 13 years in the Army, advancing to staff sergeant and was deployed to Afghanistan for one year, circa 2013, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Having previously been stationed at Hunter Army Airfield, he returned to Savannah when he got out of the Army. He originally worked at a lumber mill, but says he gave it up for mental health reasons.
“When getting out of the military I did have a lot of battles that I was fighting,” Shaw said. “One of them was mainly with PTSD, depression, anxiety and things of that nature, and it did put me in a position to where I couldn’t find stable work. So I went into a slump to the point to where I kind of isolated myself.
“I had friends, I had family, but the embarrassment kept me away from reaching out and asking for help, so I was out bouncing around between places in my car and stuff like that with no permanent place to stay,” he said.
Occasionally actually sleeping in his car but more often staying with various friends, Shaw also occupied his time with working out at a Planet Fitness in a Savannah. A general manager there hired him as a cleaner, performing tasks such as wiping down equipment. That manager also pointed him toward South University, where he got back into school and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2020.
Then, 11 months after starting as a cleaner in December 2019, Shaw became general manager of the Planet Fitness club in Rincon. Meanwhile, Planet Fitness opened the Statesboro club in April of this year, occupying a large section of the building that once housed Kmart on Northside Drive East.
The fitness center opened under a different manager, but Shaw, age 36, arrived as the general manager in September. He now directs a staff or more that 10 people, while the membership continues to grow.
“Planet Fitness actually gave me the opportunity to not only better myself as an employee but as a person in general,” he said. “They gave me the opportunities for leadership and I showed them what I can do.”
Now Shaw hopes to help other veterans and first responders facing mental health crises to find a way forward.
“I just want to make sure that those personnel that are fighting those battles that they know that we are out here, we are here to help, and there are organizations around – including Fight the War Within – that can give them assistance and help them fight those battles,” he said. “I don’t want to see them on that wall.”
Wall of Heroes
But the Wall of Heroes is there to remember those who served their nation and communities before losing their internal struggles.
The first name placed on the board was “Briggs,” for Garrett Briggs, who served with the Army’s 1-75th Ranger Regiment. After experiencing combat in 2013, he struggled with post-traumatic stress and substance abuse disorder before his death on Jan. 31, 2018. He left behind his wife, Miranda Briggs, and daughter, Essex. Miranda Briggs, a Richmond Hill resident, founded Fight the War Within Foundation two years later.
The second surname added was that of Cameron Bull, who was born at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a U.S. Marine Corps base, in 1993, and joined the Marines in 2013. Exhibiting a brilliant mind and information technology skills, he served in an intelligence unit. But after being honorably discharged, he was never the same, and after bouts of depression took his own life on March 9, 2019. His mother, Georgia Wagner, now an Augusta resident, was the one family member who took part in Thursday’s brief ceremony.
“If we can save one family each from this living nightmare, then our loved ones didn’t die in vain,” she said in the brief prepared statement about her son’s life. “Your life matters. Their lives matter. His life mattered.”