HAVERHILL — Angry and distraught over the death of Lawrence's Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario and about the way in which the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, officials say area veterans are in a vulnerable place heading into the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Foreseeing the potential for a mental health crisis among local veterans, the Warrior Support Task Force will host three days of free professional mental health services under a tent at Mill Brook Park, home to the city's new Vietnam Memorial at 111 Mill St.
During this "clinic in the park," counseling services will be offered at no cost to veterans Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
Ralph Basiliere, chairman of the city's Vietnam Memorial Commission, said commission members met Thursday with Veterans Services Officer Luis Santiago to plan for Saturday's dedication of the Vietnam Memorial, which takes place at 6 p.m.
"With Sgt. Rosario coming home and the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the end of the war in Afghanistan, we talked about how much veterans are in crisis at this time," Basiliere said. "Since we already had a tent set up in the park for the dedication, we talked about bringing in mental health counselors. We had an emergency meeting with the mayor and he agreed that we should be proactive in taking care of our veterans."
Basiliere said the idea went from concept to reality at lighting speed.
"Within 90 minutes we were operational," said Basiliere, who served in the Marines from 1984 to 1988 and was deployed five times. "For 12 hours a day for three days in a row, we're going to have counselors available to offer free, confidential mental health services. What we're trying to do is prevent an onslaught of veteran suicides."
Basiliere said he's been in touch with many local veterans in the Boston VA system while Santiago has been fielding calls from veterans as well.
"What really triggered things for local veterans is the knowledge that Sgt. Rosario is coming home on Saturday," Basiliere said. "Her death has proven to be a very painful event for many veterans in the Merrimack Valley."
Rosario, a Marine for the past eight years, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26. Her body will be escorted back into the city of Lawrence around 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11.
"The veteran community is grief stricken right now," Basiliere said. "A lot of times veterans don't want to present themselves to a clinic and just want someone to talk to, so we want to give them that opportunity ... so come down and talk to us."
Santiago said he's been receiving many calls from veterans who are angry about how the U.S. handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan and are grief stricken over the loss of Rosario and 12 other members of the U.S. military who were killed by the suicide bomber.
Santiago said staffing for the "clinic in the park" will include several certified social workers, including North Andover's Veterans Services Officer, Joseph Leblanc, and seven veterans who are trained as peer specialists.
Meals for workers and refreshments for veterans will be provided by Convanta Energy, the Driscoll Funeral Home and the city's Vietnam Memorial Commission.
"I'll be working as a peer specialist as well and as a resource advocate for those who need assistance at the local, state or federal level," Santiago said.
Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski contributed to this story
Need to talk? Professional counseling services will be offered to veterans at no cost at a "clinic in the park," running Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day in Mill Brook Park at 111 Mill St., Haverhill.