Veterans from the University of Alabama and Auburn University united as one last week to march 150 miles to raise awareness for the 22 veterans lost each day to suicide.
The more than 70-hour journey, dubbed the Operation Iron Ruck (OIR), began at Auburn’s Jordan Hare Stadium on Wednesday and concluded early Saturday morning at Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday prior to the Iron Bowl between the two football rival schools.
More than 30 people took part in the march from Auburn to Tuscaloosa while supporters followed in vehicles and provided logistical support along the way.
While the march has taken place in years past, this year the organizers had to approach things a little differently due to regulations and precautions that are being taken due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
For Operation Iron Ruck, student veterans from UA + Auburn carry 22 lbs of donated materials to a Birmingham-based nonprofit that helps homeless military veterans transition from life on the streets to a self-sustained lifestyle. → More: https://t.co/zlikARZdjw pic.twitter.com/6tmYn6JE17
— The Univ. of Alabama (@UofAlabama) November 27, 2020
Breitbart News spoke with Slade Salmon, OIR coordinator for the University of Alabama Campus Veterans Association, who explained the safety precautions put in place for the march. According to Salmon, those who took part in the march sanitized often and slept at three separate forward operating bases, which allowed for more proper social distancing.
“Statistics say that 22 veterans die by suicide during a normal year,” Salmon told Breitbart News. “Data and studies are suggesting that number is rising due to prolonged isolation with some studies showing as high as 26 a day.”
— Aubie the Tiger (@AubietheTiger01) November 25, 2020
“The goal of OIR is not only to raise awareness of veteran suicide but also breakdown the stigma surrounding mental health,” Salmon added. “It’s ok to ask someone for help and possibly even more importantly, get in touch with the people you served with. Communication and a sense of community are key aspects in cutting the suicide rate.”
Salmon says the march allows him to catch up with those he once served with.
“OIR is an amazing way to connect with veterans not only on the other side of the state, but throughout the nation as well,” Salmon said. “I use this time to reconnect with guys I haven’t talked to since I was discharged from the Marine Corps.”
Operation Iron Ruck 2020! Special thanks to @AGreeneIV for his remarks this morning. These folks will be rucking from Jordan Hare to Bryant Denney to raise awareness for veteran suicide. Reach out to a veteran this holiday – you never know whose life you can save. pic.twitter.com/wleGsF6j3B
— Jenny Robinson (@jenrobinsonphd) November 25, 2020
Breitbart News also spoke with Justin Schwabb, president of the Auburn Student Veterans Association, who reminded those who may be struggling that “there is always someone around to help you get through.”
“As for the event itself, it’s tough and uncomfortable, it’s a struggle, but just like life, there is always someone around to help you get through, even if they go to that other school,” Schwab said. “At the end of the day, this is way bigger than any rivalry, and I am proud to share the roadways of Alabama with my brothers and sisters from The University of Alabama.”
Schwab also noted that Alabama has one of the “largest veteran population percentages,” making the march even more meaningful.
“OIR is a special event to me as it serves to raise awareness for veteran suicide,” Schwab said. “As a state, Alabama has one of the largest veteran population percentages. Almost every person living in the state knows a veteran, meaning we all probably know someone battling thoughts of suicide.”
“The number one goal of OIR is just to raise awareness,” Schwab added. “Awareness of know what the signs are and where the resources for help are.”
Those who marched carried 22 pounds of materials that were donated to 3 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.” The weight carried in each sack represents the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day according to Mission 22, a national veteran suicide campaign.
“Veteran suicide is a serious issue in the veteran community,” said Ben Shewmake, president of UA’s 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 march occurred during Thanksgiving and participants stopped to have a meal together along the way.