[CW: This article contains mentions of suicide and PTSD.]
Last year, the Vassar Veterans Association (VVA) and the Vassar community at large lost a peer, mentor and friend with the passing of Vassar alumnus, Fernando Braga ’17. Braga was a U.S. Army veteran who attended Vassar College as a part of the first veteran cohort of the Posse Program at Vassar, graduating in 2017 with an International Studies degree. He moved to New York City after his time at Vassar but stayed integrated in the college’s community after graduation, often visiting campus and engaging with new veteran students, helping to ease their transition. Braga is survived by his daughter and girlfriend, as well as the memories of his kindness that touched countless members of Vassar’s community and beyond. Students are working to preserve his memory through a 5K run held in his honor taking place Oct. 1 on Joss Beach.
Britt Andrade ’24 [Disclaimer: Andrade is a columnist for The Miscellany News], a veteran, believes Braga’s loss created a hole that the Vassar veteran community might never be able to fill. For members of the veteran community, however, a death like Braga’s is not uncommon; when talking to Andrade, she explained how commonplace death by suicide has become. She stated, “Almost every veteran I know, knows someone who died by suicide. It is an insidious part of our community that disproportionately affects us and our loved ones.” According to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide, veterans are at a 57 percent higher risk of suicide, more than one-and-a-half times the national average. Andrade also explained how the close-knit veteran community is especially plagued by feelings of survivor’s guilt or failure when a member is lost. The VVA aims to not only draw attention to the tragedy of Braga’s death, and many veterans lost by suicide, but provide support to anyone who may be affected by the mental health crisis that afflicts our nation.
The Braga 5K is a fully sponsored Vassar event planned by a committee including Director of Veteran Students Outreach and Support Colleen Mallet, Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo, an army veteran; and student-veterans Andrade and Alejandro Castro ’25. The race will start at 9 a.m. with a traditional timed 5K route as well as a shorter, more scenic route through campus for participants who would like a slower-paced version of the race. Awards for first, second and third place will be presented to the participants after the race.
The event is open to the Poughkeepsie community, and Braga’s family and friends will be in attendance. Fellow veteran Carl Callendar ’17 will speak briefly about Braga before the race. Vassar College Counseling Service, local Dutchess County nonprofit organization Vet2Vet and other organizations will be tabling on Joss Beach, providing more information about the cause and ways to support the Vassar veteran community. All donations raised from the event are being split between three causes: a college fund for Braga’s daughter, the Stop Soldier Suicide organization and the Warrior Ranch Foundation. Mallet said of choosing these organizations, “It was important that we find a way to honor the memory and life of Fernando, and the Braga 5k is our way of doing that and also giving back to the larger community … We want to support those organizations that are supporting veterans and their struggles with thoughts of suicide. Our mantra has become ‘Not One More.’” Each cause was carefully chosen by members of the planning committee with each taking a special place in relation to Braga’s life. The organization Stop Soldier Suicide is a veteran-founded and veteran-led organization that began in 2010 at the height of the veteran suicide crisis. The organization works with veterans to identify issues like financial strain, post-traumatic stress disorder and transition difficulties, and provide help from their vast network of resources before it becomes a crisis situation. Stop Soldier Suicide, although founded by Army veterans, is a national organization that works with all branches of the military. The second organization, The Warrior Ranch Foundation, is a local non-profit based out of Calverton, New York. They primarily serve veterans in the state by providing sessions where veterans get to work with rehabilitated rescue horses. Animal therapy has gained popularity in recent years, providing a bond to reduce stress and increase mood, companionship and general well-being.
In the midst of the community healing from the loss of Braga, the 5K is designed to raise awareness and provide the time and space to remember a good friend of the community. Andrade ended the conversation with a sense of optimism, stating, “My wish is for the event to be not so much a somber occasion as an opportunity to celebrate a good man’s life.” While the focus is primarily on the effects of suicide on the veteran community, the event is campus-wide and hopes to be able to create a space for the entire student body to learn, remember and celebrate. The VVA hopes the Braga 5K will be an annual event and plans to host a mental health workshop in the spring, as well staying true to their mantra, “Not One More.”