Students at the University of Alabama and Auburn University are partaking in a ruck march for veterans suicide awareness beginning Wednesday.
The students’ march will begin at Jordan-Hare Stadium and end at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Iron Bowl Saturday.
In a show of support for the effort, Gov. Kay Ivey issued a proclamation Tuesday declaring Wednesday as Operation Iron Ruck Day in the Yellowhammer State.
“The sacrifice of our military men and women never ends in combat. Even when our military members return home, many struggle with the impacts of the war in exchange for our protected freedoms,” said Ivey in a release. “Watching our state’s student veterans set aside their collegiate rivalries, unite and take part in this challenging journey to bring greater awareness to veteran suicide is admirable and demonstrates that our loyalty to the veteran community is recognizably strong in Alabama.
“I’m proud to offer my support to Operation Iron Ruck. We must always continue to fight for those who fight for us, and Alabama will always stand with our veterans.”
The students will carry 22-pound ruck sacks during the four-day, 151-mile march from Auburn to Tuscaloosa. The ruck sacks hold donated items students will deliver to Bill Nichols State Veterans Home, Mission 22, Tuskegee Veteran’s Assisted Living Centers and Three Hots and a Cot.
Clayton Buchanan of the Auburn Student Veterans Association said the veterans support community would not cease its efforts so long as there is one former service member in need.
“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.”
Echoing Buchanan’s sentiments was Tiffany Laurie with the Alabama Crimson Legion.
“The life of almost every veteran and service members has been touched by suicide in some way,” said Laurie. “This year hits close to home as our community lost a veteran recently, so this year we ruck in honor of this veteran and their family.”
Operation Iron Ruck recently became a partner of Alabama’s Challenge for Preventing Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families. The suicide prevention campaign is comprised of the governor’s office, the Legislature, and several state departments.
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 numerous nonprofits are partaking in the campaign.
Kent Davis, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs and co-chair of Alabama’s Challenge, lauded the statewide support the campaign has received.
“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,” said 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.”
Alabama, which is home to approximately 400,000 veterans, holds an overall veteran population of nearly 10%. According to the governor’s office, Alabama veterans account for 18% of all suicides in the state.
In 2021, 142 Alabama veterans committed suicide.
Those battling depression or having thoughts of suicide can contact The Veterans Crisis Line at 9-8-8 to speak to trained counselors and access immediately available resources.
Dylan Smith is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL