FORT WALTON BEACH — Richard and Rebecca Winkler hit the open road on their motorcycle Sunday morning.

But wasn't just another leisurely ride.

The Winklers were leading 21 motorcycles from Crestview to the Emerald Coast Harley-Davidson in Fort Walton Beach as part of the Project Miller Ride, a cross-country motorcycle ride honoring the 22 lives of veterans and one active duty member who on average are lost each day to suicide.

 

Richard and Rebecca's son, Drew, was one of the names added to the list on the Project Miller bike this year.

"It's an honor we wish we didn't have," said Richard.

Drew Winkler died on Memorial Day in 2016, after losing his battle with PTSD. The U.S. airman left a message on his Facebook page before taking his life that read "1 of 22 per day ... (why) can't they just help us?"

Drew left behind his family and friends — and two sons under the age of 3.

According to a 2012 Veterans Affairs study, an average of 22 veterans and one active duty service member commits suicide daily. The number has since become a symbol of veteran suicides.

Every time Rebecca reads another story of a PTSD suicide, it's like "losing your child all over again," she said.

"It's serious. It's permanent," she said. "There are no second chances."

Since Drew's death, Richard and Rebecca have made it their mission to help others who are suffering, like their son was, and to connect local veterans with programs and resources. They hold an informal support group every fourth Monday of the month at South Crosspoint United Methodist Church.

"We as a country use our military like they're disposable," said Rebecca. "There are promises we've made but haven't been keeping for decades. That's why we're working to build relationships with veterans here. We're not going to forget."

JR Matzner of Yuma, Arizona, started the Project Miller Ride in honor of his best friend, Cpl. Keith Miller, who took his life Sept. 1, 2015. They had always talked about taking a cross-country trip together, but never got the chance.

Matzner decided he would take that trip and bring along the memories of his friend. Then the idea became bigger. He reached out to people on social media and asked for people to send along names of veterans and military active duty who have died from PTSD suicide to paint on his bike. He eventually ran out of room on his bike, but Matzner had photos printed of every last person which are tucked away safely with his gear.

This year is the first of hopefully many Project Miller rides, he said.

"We're not going to stop until the number (of suicides) reaches zero," Matzner said. "This is a plague. We want to show that Americans still care."

The Project Miller Ride started at the beginning of the month in Yuma and will end in Islip, New York, where Miller was from.

On Sunday, local motorcycle groups including the Blue Knights, Green Knights, Iron Order, Patriot Guard, Sandollar Motorcycle Club and Rolling Thunder participated. Rebecca said she believes Drew would be "very humbled" at the tribute.

"He would be glad that something helpful came from his death," she said.

After Drew died, the Winkler family went to tattoo artist David Clarke at Sacred-X-pressions where they all got Eeyore tattoos in honor of Drew. The Winnie the Pooh character is an inside joke among the family after Richard and Rebecca gave their son an Eeyore stuffed toy, which he took all over the world during his military service. On Richard's tattoo are two stars representing Drew's sons and a semicolon, a symbol for suicide prevention.

"It means that someone's story is unfinished," Richard said. "We believe Drew's story is unfinished."

Drew's story will continue thanks to his parents who are taking every opportunity to teach people about PTSD and the tragedies that surround it.

"Enough is enough," Rebecca said. "Too many husbands, too many wives ... it's time for parents to stop burying their children. I'm not going to be the one who sticks their head in the sand and pretends it didn't happen.

"We want people to continue to fight for those who are still struggling."