With 'Project Diehard,' local vet aims to prevent suicides

Veteran Brian Gibson stands next to the motorcycle frame originally christened "Project Diehard." That name now belongs to a nonprofit Gibson started aiming to prevent veteran suicides.

DAVE THOMPSON | The Sun

Editor's note: This is the first of a six-part series honoring local veterans, leading up to Paducah's inaugural American Hero Day celebration on Nov. 11.

By DAVE THOMPSON

A motorcycle frame sits in pieces in Brian Gibson's garage, along with an engine and other various parts -- a project he thought he'd undertake shortly after his retirement from the Army.

"It was my therapy," Gibson said.

"I was building it for some brothers that were killed in action. We always talked about riding across the country."

He never got around to completing the original "Project Diehard" and has since lent that name to his new passion project -- veteran suicide prevention.

Gibson, 51, joined the Army in 1985, and served as a medic over his 26-year career. He didn't keep track of the number of soldiers he saved, but he clearly remembers the total he couldn't save: 37.

That number, one that holds so much pain for Gibson, is dwarfed by the problem of veteran suicides. By Veterans Affairs estimates, 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

"I've lost more of my brothers and sisters to suicide than I lost in all my combat tours," Gibson said.

And one day, a buddy came over and remarked how much he'd like to spend a few weeks at Gibson's place.

Enter Project Diehard and Gibson's dream of a retreat where veterans could get away from some of the demands of life as they work to reenter civilian life.

Titled "Fort Hope," Gibson hopes to build that retreat, housing up to 100 single veterans and six families, on a tract of land in Livingston County.

Without a lot of money in the coffers -- Gibson said he has about 1% of the money needed to buy the land socked away -- he's still working to forge relationships with other veteran organizations, both local and across the country.

"Our 10-year goal is to be nationwide," Gibson said.

He hopes to raise support from individuals at $22 per month.

"Twenty-two dollars a month in remembrance of the 22 souls a (day) we lose," he said.

Right now, Gibson said, when he receives a call he works to set up veterans in need with other organizations, but he'd prefer to have oversight and be able to ensure that veterans are treated with individual care and "not just another number."

"I was an Army medic for 26 years. Who better to take care of my brothers and sisters than Doc?" he asked.

The issue of veteran suicide is personal to Gibson. He vividly remembers a call a few years back from the wife of a man he looked up to.

"This was a soldier's soldier. He was the cream," Gibson said.

"His wife calls me like 'Doc, Doc, Doc, what do I do?'"

"I said 'What's going on?'" Gibson recalled.

"He's hanging in the garage."

Gibson called that interaction "the straw that broke the camel's back" and pushed him into formulating his own solution rather than working through existing organizations.

He calls Project Diehard "a true nonprofit," and said he's not into sending donors perks or merchandise that will take money away from veterans.

"I just had to put another mortgage on my house to keep Project Diehard afloat," he said.

He also hopes to steer clear of government funding so he can maintain autonomy.

"If I'm providing it, I can make sure that we're doing it right."

His organization, with a seven-member board, received their 501(c)3 status in September 2018.

For more information, or to contact Gibson, visit projectdiehard.org.

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