NORTHFIELD — On March 21, 2016, Billie Ingram learned that days can end very differently than they begin.
Ingram had looked forward to her husband, Charles R. Ingram III, returning home, anticipating his delight at the news that their 3-year-old daughter had eaten pizza for the first time.
But that conversation never happened. Instead, she was notified her Navy veteran husband, who was called Rich, was being airlifted to Temple University Hospital Burn Center in Pennsylvania.
Police said Rich Ingram, 51, used gasoline to set himself on fire outside the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic at 1901 New Road. He died later that day.
A bench will be dedicated Saturday morning to all veterans in memory of Rich Ingram, of Egg Harbor Township — near the VA clinic where he took his life.
“I never knew how bad he was feeling,” Billie Ingram said Wednesday. “He never gave me any reason to think he had something that was bothering him so much.”
She said she sees her husband’s death as a heroic gesture.
“No one will ever know exactly why Rich chose to make his death such a bold statement, but I truly feel that he did it right there to bring attention to all veterans.”
Ingram said her husband was a quiet man who never joined any veterans groups.
“But he was proud of his service. He would wear his jacket, and he would thank other veterans when he would meet them,” she said.
He would go to the VA clinic to see the doctors, often waiting hours to see someone only to be told the doctor was unavailable and that he would have to reschedule, she said. He was frustrated by the care at the VA clinics, where in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Ventnor and finally Northfield the problem of waiting for care was a common occurrence for all veterans, his wife said.
“He would wait so long to see a doctor and then be in and out so quickly,” Ingram said. “I think his faith in the VA started to erode. He lost hope in them. The deal they made when he and other veterans made a choice to volunteer to put their life on the line for their country was that they would be taken care of when the time came and they needed help.”
She said her husband always wanted to help others and felt a true sense of dedication to other veterans: “His words were quiet, but his actions were very loud.”
Ingram said she is pleased to see the bench dedication come about. She spoke with veterans advocate Marco Polo Smigliani, of Egg Harbor Township, about having a memorial, and veterans organizations rallied around the idea. The Amish-style bench will sit on pavers that straddle the border of the clinic property and the Northfield Baptist Church next door, which agreed to have the bench there.
“I hope this will be a quiet place for veterans to relax, and maybe if they feel they need to reflect or find more answers, they can go into the church and find some peace there,” Ingram said. “I miss him every day, but I remind myself that he has helped so many people — so many veterans who put their lives on the line for us.”
Originally from Havertown, Pennsylvania, Rich Ingram served in the Navy from 1985 until he was honorably discharged in 1992. He was a submarine diesel technician, a skill he carried into a post-military career as a diesel mechanic.
“It was a terrible tragedy, the death of Charles Ingram, but that tragedy has become a springboard pointing out the woefully ineffective leadership at the Wilmington VA,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who will speak at the bench unveiling Saturday.
In 2015, LoBiondo convinced then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald to agree to a program in South Jersey that allows veterans who cannot make the commute to VA hospitals in Wilmington or Philadelphia to be referred to a community provider or local hospital for appointments. They can receive care locally at the VA’s expense.
“These service agreements allow our veterans to choose whether they will receive services at the VA or with their local doctor, which many veterans have told us they preferred,” he said.
LoBiondo said before last year there were fewer than a dozen of those local service agreements, and now there are more than 200.