Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could stop members of the University of Alabama Campus Veterans Association and Auburn University Student Veterans Association from holding the third annual Operation Iron Ruck, an initiative to bring awareness to the rash of veteran suicides in America.
Beginning Wednesday and culminating ahead of Saturday’s Iron Bowl, participants from the two schools are marching with each other from Auburn to Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, where this year’s game will be played.
During the trip, each student veteran will hike approximately 50 miles total. The participants walk for 2 ½ hours consecutively before climbing into a support vehicle for about five hours of rest before their next hike. The trip is about 151 miles long and takes approximately three days to complete.
Operation Iron Ruck supports Mission 22, a veteran suicide campaign recognizing that 22 veterans die by suicide daily across the nation.
To bring attention to this statistic, student veterans from UA and Auburn this year are each carrying 22 pounds of materials in their rucksacks to be donated to Three Hots and a Cot, a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization that assists homeless military veterans transition from life on the streets into a self-sustained lifestyle.
“Veteran suicide is a serious issue in the veteran community,” commented Ben Shewmake, president of the UA Campus Veterans Association. “The loss of camaraderie, along with service-related problems leave some believing their only way to fix their issues is to end their life. This can be attributed to some people not transitioning back into society, sexual assault issues, family problems and military-related illnesses.”
“The awareness is not to say, ‘hey this is happening,’ but more to tell the ones who are thinking about it that there are people who care and are here if they reach out,” Shewmake added. “There is also a newer message that is popping up that is to tell everyone to keep in touch with their former colleagues and that one random text or call to someone may keep them from committing suicide and no one will probably ever know that. It’s as much to tell those who may be struggling that people care as it is to tell the people who care to reach out rather than wait on being reached out to.”
This initiative has attracted widespread support, including when Governor Kay Ivey last year offered her backing of the program and even formally declared Operation Iron Ruck Day in the state of Alabama.
“Since our country’s inception, our military members have shown their patriotism, their bravery, and ultimately, their willingness to lay their lives on the line for the sake of protecting our freedoms. That sacrifice does not end in combat, because even when our men and women return safely home, many continue to struggle with the impacts of war,” Ivey said in 2019.
“Sadly, in our country, suicide claims the lives of around 22 veterans each day. I urge Alabamians and people all across our country to continue fighting for those who fight for us. I am proud to see this committed group of students from Alabama and Auburn come together to bring awareness to this issue facing veterans in our country,” the governor concluded.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who potentially is doing so, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community.
Additionally, veterans and service members, as well as their loved ones, can call the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line to connect with qualified, caring U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline (1-800-273-8255, Press 1).
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn