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Alabama, Auburn students set to kick off Operation Iron Ruck march for veteran suicide awareness

University of Alabama and Auburn University student veterans this week will partake in a ruck march in an effort to bring awareness to veteran suicide.

The fourth annual march of Operation Iron Ruck will begin on Wednesday, November 24, from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and end on Iron Bowl Saturday, November 27, at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday offered her support to the cause, expressing her pride for students’ efforts of both universities in orchestrating the march.

“It is imperative that, as a nation, we never forget to offer our support to the brave men and women who have served our country in the military,” declared Ivey. “We must put a greater focus on preventing veteran suicide and on supporting these brave men and women after they return home, which is why I am so proud of the efforts of our student veterans embarking on Operation Iron Ruck. Our military men and women put it all on the line to ensure our freedoms, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Alabama will always stand behind our veterans.”

The 151-mile ruck march from Tuscaloosa to Auburn will consist of students carrying rucksacks, which contain donated items that will be delivered to Mission 22, Tuskegee Veteran’s Assisted Living Centers and Three Hots and a Cot.

Slade Salmon of the University of Alabama and Auburn University’s Clayton Buchanan are leading the effort.

“Many veterans, myself included, personally know another veteran or service member who have succumbed to suicide,” said Buchanan. “On average, 17 veterans commit suicide daily. Through Operation Iron Ruck and the collaboration of the student veterans of Auburn and Alabama, it truly shows that the veteran community is strong and committed to take care of our brothers and sisters until seventeen becomes zero.”

Salmon advised that the march was “more than just a bunch of vets walking down the road for three days.”

He stated, “OIR represents two distinct groups of people who are able to put aside their differences, come together, and participate in an event for a cause that is greater than all of us. The 151-mile march represents the struggles and hardships that veterans go through on a constant basis as they assimilate back into the civilian world. Our message for everyone is to reach out to their veteran friends and see how they are doing. It just might save their life.”

Operation Iron Ruck recently became a partner of Alabama’s Challenge for Preventing Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families.

Statewide efforts to combat veteran suicide is supported by the Governor’s Office, the Alabama Legislature, several state departments, including the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, Alabama Department of Mental Health, Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, the Alabama National Guard and multiple nonprofits.

Kent Davis, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs and co-Chair of Alabama’s Challenge, praised the partnership effort between the rival schools.

“It speaks volumes that the Alabama and Auburn student veterans’ associations set aside their rivalry during the week of the Iron Bowl to work together in raising awareness about veteran suicide,” proclaimed Davis. “This march establishes a connectedness and level of support that has a lasting impact within the veteran community. I’m proud of both universities and all participants for the work they are doing to help raise awareness for veteran suicide.”

Around 400,000 veterans call the Yellowhammer State home. While only representing about 10% of Alabama’s population, the state’s veterans also represent 18% of suicides.

The governor’s office advised that veterans battling depression or having thoughts of suicide are encouraged to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL