May 24th, 2023
On Memorial Day 2023, hundreds of veterans, family members, and friends will gather at Veterans Memorial Park at Glencoe, Illinois to start a 17-mile ruck march toward Evanston. Their goal is to spread awareness that 17 military veterans die by suicide each day. It was only a few years ago that this number was 22. According to the 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the adjusted rates for Veterans' suicide fell by 9.7% in 2020 from 2018.
This downward trend is hopeful and indicative that the VA’s 2018 National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide efforts are working. Everyone’s collective effort to spread awareness of this public health concern while reducing the stigma of mental health shows that when we pool our energies together, support one another, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can hopefully save a life.
The Chicago Veterans Group is one of many groups all over the United States that will be walking during Memorial Day weekend in honor and remembrance of those lost on the battlefield abroad and the ones we lost at home. Ruck marches are a military staple, a key part of training. Servicemembers load up their rucksacks with gear that can weigh anywhere from 30 pounds to 80 pounds and march, most of the time for hours.
It is a test of endurance with the goal of moving as a group from one location to the other while carrying battle gear in a manner that is swift and efficient. It is a challenge that tests the body as well as the mind. The weight of the rucksacks represents many things to each person. It can serve as a reminder of the heavy weight we carry on our shoulders from serving our country or some other significant life event.
It may represent the challenge of overcoming the stigma of mental health treatment and seeking help. It may represent the various unhealthy coping strategies, such as isolation, anger towards loved ones, or substance use. Or it can represent the despair felt from the lives lost too soon.
Whatever the rucksack may mean to the carrier and as heavy as that weight can get with each mile, you are surrounded by peers, marching with your mates, swapping stories, commiserating on the pain and traumatic events while encouraging each other to put one foot in front of the other, to push forward, and to fight through.
Echoes of “Come on, let’s keep going!”, “You got this!”, “What do you need?”, “How can I help?”, and “You got water? Don’t forget to hydrate” can be heard up and down the line. Silly, sad, or catchy meaningless cadences, or “work songs,” meant to encourage pacing, instill teamwork, boost morale, and build camaraderie are used to motivate and inspire one another to fight through fatigue and exhaustion.
Now the whole point of this verbal dialogue is not to highlight how broken veterans are or how much help they need. In fact, many veterans are movers and shakers. They are in executive leadership and business owners. They are political game-changers.
They are creators, innovators, and inventors. I write this to illustrate their resiliency and how much we can learn from this community of veterans and their families and friends. As mentioned earlier, from 2018 to 2020, the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rates of Veterans fell by 9.7%. So much needs to be done to help those suffering from military depression.
This is a larger percentage decrease than was observed for non-veteran adults in the U.S., which was at 5.5%. In the mere two years since the implementation of the Veterans suicide prevention campaign, we saw a serious reduction in the suicide rate.
This community saw a need and came together to solve a problem. They banded together to support one another and said, “If one of us suffers, then all of us suffer. Something needs to change.”
When we are challenged mentally and physically, it transcends everything. Those things that appear to divide us, whether it is rank, military branch, gender, sexual orientation, race, or whatever it could be, they just slip away.
Look at how far we have come by working together, brainstorming, and putting our collective minds to work. That group joined hands and said we are “one team, one fight.” And this time, the fight is to spread awareness that suicide continues to be a problem, there is still so much work to be done to address mental illness in the military, and no one should be left behind.
May is Military Appreciation Month. Strapping on some boots, throwing some gear in the bag, and showing up at the Veterans Memorial Park in Glencoe, IL on May 26, 2023, at 0700 would be one way to show your support. You can be a sponsor for the event. Other ways to show support:
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