Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez, left, and Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander trim a juniper bush Thursday, June 20, 2019, in the Circle of Flags at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The two joined other volunteers to clean up the Circle’s rose garden for a Pride in America event co-hosted by the Cheyenne Veteran Affairs Health Care System and Wyoming Equality. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – As people approach the entrance of the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, they’ll see a circle in the front of the building. The circle has been there since 1934, but it’s about to look a little different.

As volunteers pruned overgrown rose bushes and pulled up weeds Thursday at the Circle of Flags, they participated in the Pride in America event hosted by the Cheyenne VA in partnership with Wyoming Equality.

The goal of the event was to beautify the Circle of Flags in honor of veterans and let them know that no matter their gender, sexual orientation or identity, the Cheyenne VA is there for them.

The overarching goal of the event was suicide prevention and to let the LGBTQ community know they are welcome at the VA. People who are in the LGBTQ community tend to be at a higher risk of suicide, according to The Trevor Project.

“There’s a direct correlation between people having their identities acknowledged and affirmed, and a direct drop in suicidality, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse,” said Sara Burlingame, director of Wyoming Equality.

VA veterans care coordinator Michael Moore first came up with the circle beautification project idea. The rose garden was originally created 13 years ago, but since then, there’s been a lapse in its care. Moore said he approached the LGBTQ community in town to see if they would be willing to take up the project.

“Just getting the word out that the VA does provide care for the LGBT community and that they are welcome to come here,” Moore said of his motivation for creating the event.

A lot of veterans hear what’s said on TV about the U.S. Department of Defense, he said, such as the proposed transgender military ban, and feel they aren’t welcome at the VA. But that is not the case.

A lot of VAs have tried many different things to make sure the LGBTQ community feels welcome, VA public affairs officer Sam House said, and those VA’s have gotten a lot of “angst,” which is not the VAs goal or mission.

“I need to make sure that people, everyone who walks through our gate – drives through our gate – feels important to us, because everyone deserves health care,” House said.

Bent over a patch of weeds, Jill Randall said she was there to support the veterans and Wyoming Equality.

She said events like these are important because it’s nice to show veterans the community cares. And she said she loved the idea of these organizations coming together.

“LGBTQ people have always served in the armed forces; they just haven’t always been celebrated when they came home,” Burlingame said. “I think the Cheyenne VA is absolutely right to say our soldiers deserve better than that.”

Isabella Alves is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at ialves@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter @IsabellaAlves96.

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