Local teen’s group spearheading the fight against veteran suicide

Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Indian River High School JROTC students organize food, clothing and toiletry donations.Coastal Point photos • Submitted: Indian River High School JROTC students organize food, clothing and toiletry donations.Sussex County is a small place, but it’s not immune to nationwide problems, including military veterans committing suicide. Some young people have been victims, but some of their peers are now pushing for a brighter future.

Richard Pope, 18, founded Operation Yellow Spear in 2015 “to spearhead the assault on veteran suicide through art, love and grace.”

Based in Laurel, his homeless outreach program is attacking the statistics from the ground up.

“Veteran suicide starts with the community they live in and the struggles they face. We’re reaching out to veteran homelessness, because that can lead to suicide,” Pope said.

They visit vets living on the street and provide counseling, food and job-seeking skills. The program has already helped seven homeless vets find jobs and a place to stay.

The rehabilitation program includes different pieces to help create a meaningful life. That means résumé writing, job-seeking, home-hunting, arts training and (if desired) Bible study.

“We teach them an art, whether it be music, writing, drawing, painting,” or other coping skills, Pope said. “What do they need to survive? In our opinion, the biggest thing any human being needs,” he said, is something to do and an art.

Volunteers are trained to safely check on homeless vets on a weekly basis and help connect them to other Delaware agencies as needed. (Vets with more serious problems are connected straight to the VA.)

“What do you need to be happy, productive member of society?” Pope described as the outreach’s mission focus.

Some vets have subsequently turned around to continue helping Operation Yellow Spear.

For the name, Pope said, he wanted a more action-packed version of the traditional yellow ribbon. Spears are a symbol of tradition and the first weapons used by early military. More importantly, he said, these Delawareans want to punch through the issue of homelessness.

As a teenager, Pope founded Operation Yellow Spear after seeing what veterans can endure on a daily basis. The 20th-century wars found in history books also weave through Pope’s family history. His own father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I see all these guys with shiny medals. On Veterans Day and July 4, everyone loves the veterans,” Pope said, but that’s just one day out of 365. “These veterans aren’t just veterans on the holidays.”

They struggle year-round.

IRHS chips in

At Indian River High School, senior John Wharton spearheaded a clothing and food drive to help Operation Yellow Spear. He serves with Pope in the Delaware Army National Guard, but also serves as cadet captain in the IRHS JROTC.

The clothing and supplies drive began in early January, starting with the JROTC and extending to the more “civilian” side of the school population.

Wharton estimated that they collected more than 350 items, including more than 200 pieces of clothing, nearly 100 personal-hygiene items and 50 food items.

IR’s clothing drive wasn’t the teachers’ idea, either.

“I’m really impressed that they took the initiative on their own,” said IR teacher Lester “Gunny” James. “He came, and he said, ‘This is what we want to do,’ and, of course, we were 100 percent behind him. … I was really impressed that teenagers took the initiative to think of others.”

Those supplies make a difference, Pope said.

“We need the support of these other organizations because, yes, we specialize in the initial contact and crisis management … but we can only do so much. So, to see the JROTCs … jumping in and helping out and giving us the supplies we need to do our job [is] amazing.”

Keep it going

Based now in western Sussex, Operation Yellow Spear aims to grow smart, not swiftly, into Salisbury, Md., and they’ve got the youthful energy to do so, in spades.

At least half of Pope’s board and volunteers are younger than 21.

“Even high school students and teenagers can help support such a big cause,” Wharton said.

Having already hosted two rallies and other awareness events, Operation Yellow Spear is planning a 22-mile ruck march, poker run and after-party for this May.

They’re also running a “Bibles for Vets” drive, aiming to collect 1,000 Bibles for local veterans in crisis who are interested. Bibles can be dropped at Laurel Wesleyan Church from Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They can also be mailed to P.O. Box 175, Millsboro, DE 19966. Other churches are being invited to participate.

To help or learn more, contact operationyellowspear@gmail.com, visit the website www.facebook.com/operationyellowspear or call (302) 296-7064. Donations are welcome at www.gofundme.com/oyssnow or by mail to P.O. Box 175; Millsboro, DE 19966.

“Money will go to buying Bibles, books, clothes, food — anything that can help these guys out, whether it be spiritually, physically or mentally,” Pope said in an online video designed to spread awareness of the group.