“One thing we've discovered since Drew died is that people need to be able to talk to someone who understands what they're going through."
CRESTVIEW — On a warm Monday morning in May, Drew Winkler’s family gathered around a picnic table at Twin Hills Park.
Nearly a year earlier, Winkler, an Iraq War veteran who had struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder, had taken his own life on Memorial Day. For 11 months, his family has ridden a roller coaster of emotions as they’ve tried to cope with their loss.
May’s arrival made everything that much harder.
Winkler’s family had come to the park to reminisce about their son and brother — something they do every day. But the realization that the smart, funny young man they had all adored had been gone for almost a year was hard for everyone to take.
“I’ve been making it through every day since it happened, thinking 'OK, it’s been one month that’s he’s been gone, then two months, then three,' ” Winkler’s mother, Rebecca Winkler, said. “But when I woke up and it was May 1, it seemed different. Suddenly it was no longer just a few months. It was almost the one-year anniversary. That was hard. May’s been hard.”
When Drew Winkler shot himself in a car in his parent’s driveway last year, the action was seen by many as symbolic of the plight of the thousands of other veterans who are struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other health issues related to their military service. The fact that he chose to end his life on Memorial Day was not lost on his family.
“He was definitely trying to send a message,” Drew’s brother Craig said. “That was not a coincidence.”
That message, his family believes, was best expressed in his last Facebook post.
“1 of 22 a day ... why can’t they just help us ... goodbye.”
The “22 a day” Winkler mentioned refers to the estimate of how many veterans take their own lives. In one of his last text messages to his mother, Winkler, who sought help for his PTSD and other issues from the Veterans Administration’s medical system, said he was fighting the demons in his head every day, but that he was losing.
“That was a word he used a lot — demons,” Rebecca Winkler said.
Winkler’s parents and brothers have taken his last Facebook post as a set of marching orders. When news of his death became public last year, many others who had lost a loved one to suicide reached out to Winkler’s family, while others in the community rallied around to show their support for the family and for veterans in general.
‘The good, the bad, and the ugly’
In the early days after their loss, the family was overwhelmed by that response.
“We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Rick Winkler said. “Of course, the good way outweighed the bad.”
The good was immediate: a local church stepped up to host Winkler’s memorial service, and civic groups and individuals donated to a fund to help support the son and stepson he left behind.
“We had help from really unexpected places,” Winkler’s brother Corey recalled. “Like, just recently the people at Coastal Power Sports had a fundraiser for us. I don’t think any of us have ever had any contact with them, but they stepped forward to help.”
The bad and the ugly came soon enough.
“We had a guy approach who said he wanted to have a fundraiser to help us,” Rick Winkler recalled. “He claimed to have known Drew, but turned out to be a scam artist.”
Out of that bad experience came “Winkler’s Wish,” a non-profit organization that provides peer support groups and other assistance to veterans struggling with PTSD.
“One thing we’ve discovered since Drew died is that people need to be able to talk to someone who understands what they’re going through,” said Winkler’s father, Rick. “We learned that there really wasn’t a support group for veterans with PTSD in the Crestview area, so we started Winkler’s Wish to give people that support.”
The entire family has thrown themselves into supporting Winkler’s Wish. In addition to helping other veterans, they hope it will help to keep alive the memory of their loved one.
“One of the hardest things after something like this happens is that people are afraid to talk to you about the person you lost,” said Anissa Thompson, Craig Winkler’s girlfriend. “It doesn’t upset me to talk about Drew. We all think about him every day, and we don’t want him to be forgotten.”