ìIn 2008, 41 U.S. Marines committed suicide ó a rate of 19 per 100,000 troops. In 2007, the figure was 33 suicides (16.5 per 100,000) and in 2006 it was 25 (12.9 per 100,000). Last year, the Marine Corps lost more troops to suicide than were killed in Iraq (32) or Afghanistan (27). The Army had a similar increase. In 2008, 128 soldiers committed suicide ó a rate of 20.2 per 100,000, up from 16.8 in 2007,î reported the Los Angeles Times, on February 28th.

Traumatic brain injuries have affected an estimated ten to 20 percent of the approximately 1.8 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, March 5th.

Many men and women who leave in one piece to go to war, return broken (sometimes with post-traumatic stress disorder) to face what can seem like insurmountable hurdles in returning to civilian life.

James and Nina Merced, veterans themselves, recognize a need to raise the publicís awareness of military troops from the Venice area who fought in current and past wars and the families of those who sacrificed their lives.

The Venice Veteran Committee, established by James and Nina, is dedicated to helping Venice veterans.

ìWith our backgrounds as veterans (James in the U.S. Marine Corp and Nina in the U.S. Navy), we really saw in the last couple of years, especially after 9/11, how the increase in our military became mostly kids fighting a war ñ some of them not truly knowing the cause ñ and either giving their lives or coming back wounded,î says James.

The purpose of the organization is to give day-to-day assistance to veterans who have been injured or traumatized while serving in the armed forces.

James says that one out of every four homeless persons is a veteran. ìWe have to find out what their story is and help them establish themselves to get assistance before it is too late,î he says.

High on the list of priorities is to build a network of agencies as resources.

ìI think of lot of the organizations and services, not intentionally, pass the buck to the VA (Veterans Administration) and it is a whole other monster machine to deal with,î says James.

ìWhen these folks come back they only get a certain percentage for compensation, like 30 percent for a blown-off arm. When I was in the Marine Corps, it was 30 percent if I had high blood pressure. This is what we are dealing with right now.î

A new law requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop plans to reach out to veterans returning from combat and assist them in obtaining screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. There is a $55.9 billion proposal in President Obamaís budget, which is an 11 percent increase in overall veteransí healthcare spending, mental health services and programs for homeless vets. However, there is no guarantee on how long all of this will take, and more importantly, if programs will be in place for the imminent wave of troops returning home.

A kickoff event to launch the Venice Veterans Committee to honor Venice veterans is scheduled August 9th in conjunction with the Venice Beach Music Festival at Ocean Front Walk and Windward Avenue. The Venice Rotary Club is assisting with the planning. Tom Ryan, representing the Rotary, says he wants to ìtag along with Jamesí and Ninaís passion and energy and see what we can do to help facilitate.î

Although the Rotary Club is non-political, he adds that ìregardless of the party or administration, there hasnít been one born or elected yet who has stepped up to the plate to help the veterans. So, itís really up to the community to bond together to take care of our own because we are on our own.î

There are several ways the community can help, he says. In addition to the always-appreciated financial assistance, resources for housing, job training, employment, medical, food and clothing and other essentials are needed.

Most crucial, at this point, is to procure names of veterans and dates they served and identify families who lost a member whether it was a child, parent or spouse, and to find out what their needs are.

ìThe families are struggling too,î says James. ìWe want to honor the people who gave their lives.î

James and Nina joined the service in their late teens. They built their life together from scratch and had their share of struggles along the way. While the real estate market in Riverside was booming, they were able to prosper off their investments and decided to purchase a business in Venice. At first, James kept his day job and Nina commuted 60 miles each way for six months.

Today, James and Nina are proud to look back on what they have been able to accomplish. James acknowledges how ìopen doors and good peopleî helped them out. Their home, business and school for their children are all within walking distance of each other.

ìItís a setup that fell into our laps too perfectly aligned,î he says. ìI couldnít have asked for anything more.î

The Mercedsí passion for family is now extended to their brothers and sisters of the military.

ìIn the service, we were looking out for each other,î says James. ìItís a camaraderie that stays with you for the rest of your life. Youíre just proud of that. We want to support, honor and aid our folks. Theyíre relying on us as a community.

For more information, you may contact James and Nina at (310) 452-3034 or fruitgallery@yahoo.com/. For those of you who donít have email, you may find them at 1 Westminster Ave. during the day.