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EDITORIAL: Don't let Erik Foote's life be in vain

Bangor Daily News - 5/2/2024

May 2—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

The family of Erik Foote, the Army veteran whose body was found in Caribou last week after an agonizing months-long search, is raising money in his name and working to prevent tragedy like this from happening to other veterans and other families. We join them in their powerful call to action.

"If we don't start changing the way we treat people, and how we think about them, and help our military members, veterans, citizens and neighbors that are struggling with mental health issues, that are crying out for help, then we fail as a community, as a country and as Americans," the Foote family said in a statement this week, as reported by TV station WABI.

"Please don't let Erik's life be in vain," the family said. "Please don't let what he suffered go without honoring him by paying it forward by supporting awareness for better access to mental health services and training for law enforcement officers and personnel."

It falls to all of us, not just the Foote family, to turn the agony into action. That means showing support at the vigil being held in Erik Foote's memory at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Washburn Area Veterans Memorial. It means contributing to the family's fundraiser for other veterans that has been launched in Erik's name. It means the public advocating for and government officials working to implement improvements in our mental health system — especially for veterans. It means making sure that officials across society, including in law enforcement, have the training and resources needed to help people in crisis.

And it means celebrating and emulating the way that Foote went through life, always ready to help others.

"He never met a stranger, ever," his mother, Brenda Foote, said. "Anybody that needed anything, Erik would do it for them. If it was freezing cold out, he would take his coat off and give it to them."

The Foote family is now working to raise $100,000 for Disabled American Veterans, an organization that assists and advocates for veterans across the country.

"No amount of money can give me back my son. But that was my goal, a big goal that I know would make Erik happy," she said. "That's going to give us so much comfort. And how many veterans that will help."

This admirable effort is sure to help other veterans. Policymakers across all levels of government should also be thinking about ways to help in a systematic way. There is still so much work to do — both in Maine and across the country, and both in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs system and the general population — to reduce stigma and improve access to mental health services. When systems fail someone like Erik Foote, we all need to assess shortcomings and work to make things better.

We apply that same thought to ourselves and the error we made on last Thursday's front page of the Bangor Daily News print and e-editions. We erroneously and accidentally published a draft story saying that Foote's body had been identified, when no public statement on the identification had been made at that time. This came during an already painful time, and we immediately apologized to the Foote family. We continue to deeply regret the error and have taken steps to make sure it does not happen again.

As a society, we must all work to make sure the tragedy that happened to Erik Foote does not happen to other veterans.

"If he had gotten help, he'd be alive, and that's a mother's pain," his mother said. "When I started that donation page and donations trickled in, [it] made me feel like 'See, Erik, people care about what happened to you.'"

We care about what happened to him, as so many others do, and we are in awe of his family's resolve at such a difficult time.

Foote was always ready to help others, but when he needed it, that help was not there for him. In his name, and with his generosity in mind, we all must work to make sure that help is there for others in the future. America owes that much and more to Foote, and to all the brave people who have served this country. His death will not be in vain, and his life will continue to have a positive impact through all the other veterans helped in his name.

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(c)2024 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)

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