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LEXINGTON, N.C. — Sitting in a room filled with photographs and mementos, Stephanie Maner said her son’s lifelong goal was joining the US Army.

“Once he set his mind to something, he did it. He was his own person. He really was,” Maner said.

Nickolas Maner served as a specialist in Afghanistan for 10 months in 2011. When he came home, his mother knew something had changed.

“I could tell right away that he wasn’t the same Nickolas. He had a hardness about him. He just wasn’t the same fun-loving Nick. You could just tell,” Maner said.

He moved several times, and Maner said her son was having a tough time finding his path.

In 2017, Nickolas was living in Nevada, and told her he was doing well.

“He was telling me all about his job. He just bought a car, he and his dog were going to move, and then I got the call, and I never saw it coming,” Maner said. “And I heard that Nickolas shot himself, and he wasn’t going to make it. I can just remember screaming ‘Nickolas,’ and my husband and my son coming in here with the phone and just trying to make sense of what happened.”

Two years later, Maner said she is still making sense of what happened.

She wanted other veterans to know they aren’t alone and decided to take part in a photoshoot aimed at ending stigma surrounding mental health.

“No mother should have to bury her child, and no mother should lose her child to suicide,” Maner said.

Photographer Rebecca Benfield took a series a photos of Maner holding a board reading “His name is Nick Maner. He had PTSD. He mattered.”

“They need to know it’s OK. It’s ok to feel alone It’s ok to feel numb. It’s ok to not feel anything,” Benfield said.

She knew Nickolas years ago and said she has also struggled with PTSD from childhood trauma.

“I understand the flashbacks. I understand what it’s like to hear a noise and for all those memories to come rushing back,” Benfield said.

Maner has also written to the VA asking for better access to mental health services for veterans.

“It shatters your heart, and I just think something needs to be done,” Maner said.

She believes Nickolas would have liked the photos.

“I think his face just would have lit up, and I think he would have been really proud of them,” Maner said.