A military mom has a new purpose to serve the community after her son took his own life during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020.
Vicki Randall, who lives in Brainerd, joined Liz Collin on her podcast this week to share the story of her son’s suicide and to advocate for veterans.
Cody Lee Randall was an E5 sergeant in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Anchorage, Ala., at the beginning of the pandemic.
“He sought help outside of the Army and had had just three [counseling] sessions when Alaska shut everything down, and his counseling was shut down,” Randall said she later found out.
This was April of 2020, after Cody had been enlisted at Fort Richardson in Anchorage for three years. His wife and young daughter lived with him on base.
In March of 2020, Vicki Randall lost her job as a nail technician when the government shut down her business. The next month, her son’s best friend came to her house with the news that Cody “had shot himself the night before.”
“I had no idea that he suffered from the mental illness that he did, and the depression,” she said.
She spent the following days trying to get information on flying into Alaska during COVID-19. If she were to fly into Alaska, she would have had to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days.
Eventually, she got in contact with the director of the department of health in Alaska. She flew in, was picked up at the airport, and was taken directly to the funeral home, where she was able to see her son just before he was cremated.
But, she said, the military did not give Cody a “proper funeral.”
“I was happy that we had a memorial service for him; however, with this memorial service, his ashes were not allowed to be at the service because then it would be considered a funeral, and funerals were not being allowed,” Randall said.
She said having to wear a mask at the memorial service was “absolutely a nightmare” and just getting on base was a feat, considering the restrictions that were in place at the time.
“I’ve always said try to cry and sob and tears are running and snot is running, and you’ve got a mask on.”
Randall said she couldn’t believe that funerals were taking place over Zoom during COVID lockdowns and that so many people were dying alone without loved ones surrounding them.
“We lost all sense of humanity during the pandemic. Nothing else mattered but COVID,” she said.
After five months, they were able to have a memorial service and funeral with Cody’s ashes present.
“And we did it on private property,” she noted.
Despite the turmoil Randall went through, she is grateful for a local nonprofit that helps veterans, and she is involved now in driving new fundraisers and events for the organization.
When she got off the plane in Brainerd, returning from her son’s memorial service in Alaska, 11 veterans from the Eagle’s Healing Nest greeted her. They stood with American flags on either side of the aisle as she walked in.
“I needed [that] after the week I’d had in Alaska, trying to deal with all of the details of my son, to get off that airplane and to be greeted with such love — I can’t even explain it,” she said.
She and her husband became involved with the Eagle’s Nest and now host an annual walk in their son’s honor to raise money for the nonprofit.
The Eagle’s Nest, located in Sauk Centre, is run by and for veterans, providing a place for them to live when they need help. The nonprofit offers programs for healing and daily meals for any veterans in need.
Randall started the Panda Project to raise money for the Eagle’s Nest and in honor of Cody, who had a panda tattoo and often used the word “panda” for his gaming usernames and passwords. The Panda Project hosts an annual walk, which will be Aug. 20 this year, and raises money to donate to the Eagle’s Nest, which runs entirely on donations.
“People ask about it, what is the Panda Project, and we tell them the story of Cody,” Randall said. “So [the name] does have a significance, and hopefully more and more people will learn about it.”
Randall and Collin discussed the high rate of suicide among veterans, which is around 20 per day in the U.S. On Cody’s base alone, seven active soldiers took their own lives in 2020, and last year there were 17 suspected suicide deaths on the base.
“I know I’m not alone, and yet the media was not reporting any of these stories,” Randall said. She reached out to the media, and got only one response — from an outlet whose only goal was to get “dirt on the Army.”
“I’m working very hard to be able to continue talking about him and never forgetting what he went through and what happened during that time in our world,” Randall said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help available 24 hours a day. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 800-273-8255.