Iron Ruck march set to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As many people begin to focus on Thanksgiving, good meals and time with family, there’s a group of student veterans from the University of Alabama and Auburn University setting all that - and intense rivalry - aside in order to focus on an important cause.
Those students, from UA’s Crimson Legion and the Auburn Veterans Service Association, will take part in the annual 2022 Operation Iron Ruck march to shine the light of awareness on veteran suicide prevention.
Starting Wednesday, they’ll set out on a 151-mile journey from Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa ahead of the biggest rivalry game of the year; the Iron Bowl.
“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 Kent Davis, who serves as the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs and Co-Chair of Alabama’s Challenge.
Alabama has one of the nation’s highest veteran suicide rates. More than 10% of the state’s population, or about 400,000 citizens, are veterans. However, they make up a disproportionate 18% of suicides. In 2020, for example, 152 of those vets took their own lives.
Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a proclamation declaring Nov. 23, 2022 as Operation Iron Ruck Day in the state of Alabama.
“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,” Ivey said. “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.”
They’ll carry some important items on their journey, including 22 blank dog tags. They’ll also wear 22-pound rucksacks holding donated items to be delivered to charities that help the state’s veteran population.
“Many veterans, myself included, personally know another veteran or service member who have succumbed to suicide,” said Clayton Buchanan with the Auburn Student Veterans Association. “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.”
This year’s the mission is even more important for Buchanan, who spoke of his roommate, Josh Marshall, a young, fellow professional flight student, “and he also was a big part of helping me plan the Iron Ruck last year.”
Just weeks afterward, Josh, a Navy veteran, took his own life.
“It was a big shock to everybody,” Buchanan explained. “He was the happiest guy in the world.”
“The life of almost every veteran and service members has been touched by suicide in some way,” said Tiffany Laurie with the Alabama Crimson Legion. “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.”
Participants this year will wear pins in honor of both Josh and a UA student veteran who took his life just this month. Buchanan hopes the walks serves as a reminder to all veterans that they are not alone.
“Every veteran in the state of Alabama, in the whole country, just to know that you know, there’s people out there that are willing to walk across the state of Alabama for him.”
If you or a loved one are battling depression or having thoughts of suicide, you are encouraged to call The Veterans Crisis Line at 9-8-8 to speak to trained counselors and access immediately available resources.
You can keep up with this year’s walk at www.avastore.com and on Instagram at WarDamnVeterans.
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