By: Michele Leivas
Record-breaking heat didn’t stop the group of 119 people who participated in the first annual Lake County Ruck March hosted by the Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation (LCVFSF) on Saturday.
Equal parts fundraiser and social movement, the march was organized to raise awareness of the national endemic of veteran suicide. It began at the Veterans Memorial Park in North Chicago and led participants on a 15-mile walk to Dryhootch, LCVFSF’s drop-in center located in Grayslake.
Congressman Brad Schneider, a prominent and active figure in the military and veteran community of Lake County, presided over the march’s opening ceremony, citing the statistic that 20 veteran lives are lost each day to suicide.
“One (life) is too many,” he said.
Schneider stood before the crowd and implored them to do what they could for the veteran community in their county to help prevent another life lost to suicide.
“The same way our veterans and active duty personnel have my back, I need to have theirs,” he said.
Among the group of walkers were several Lake County judges, including Judge Christen Bishop, a circuit judge who oversees Lake County’s specialty courts, including veterans’ courts, and serves as presiding Judge Christopher Stride’s backup. Bishop said one of the greatest functions of both veterans’ court and LCVFSF is that they step in to fill the gaps a veteran may face after transitioning out of the military.
“I think they’ve known the military their entire life and when they’re no longer part of that, it’s like losing their family,” she said. “So this is a way to kind of fill in and say, ‘Well we’re your family now.’”
Grayslake resident Rebecca Hughes participated in the march for her brother-in-law, Joe, who completed tours as a Marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He struggled greatly with PTSD and we lost him suddenly and unexpectedly,” she said.
Hughes wore a T-shirt bearing Joe’s name and photo, a way to physically carry him on the march with her as she carries him in her thoughts every single day.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a report last year touted as “the most comprehensive analysis of veteran suicide in our nation’s history.” “Suicide of Veterans and other American 2001-2014” analyzed more than 55 million military records from 1979 to 2014 in a study “unprecedented in its breadth and depth of information about the characteristics of suicide among Veterans.”
According to the report, in Illinois alone in 2014, nearly 200 veterans took their own lives: 183 men and 10 women. That number constitutes nearly 13 percent of the total veteran suicides in the Midwestern region that year. The Midwestern region – which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin – reported a total of 1,516 veteran suicides for 2014.
Kristina Lecce is one of three suicide prevent coordinators at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Healthcare Center. She said her team of coordinators are continuously working with both the civilian and military communities to raise awareness of veteran suicide to help lower, and eventually eliminate, those numbers.
One of the more startling facts of the 2016 report, Lecce said, is that of those 20 veterans who die from suicide every day, 14 of them are not receiving any kind of assistance or treatment from the VA.
In an effort to seek out these 14 veterans, Lecce and her team participate regularly within the surrounding communities, setting up tables at events veterans are known to attend, from motorcycle club events to major country concerts like Wisconsin’s annual Country Thunder. On Veterans’ Day, she said they will visit restaurants who serve free meals to veterans and distribute coasters bearing the name and telephone number of the Veterans’ Crisis Line.
“You never know who you’re going to reach,” she said. “Even if it’s not the veteran, it could be their family member or maybe their child. It could be anyone who sees that number and then calls the crisis line.”
“We’re always looking for new ideas and ways to get out there to reach those 14 a day who aren’t connected to VA care,” she added.
The Office of Suicide Prevention has launched an awareness campaign for September – Suicide Prevention Month – titled #BeThere. This campaign echoes the sentiments Schneider expressed in his opening words of the march:
“One of the most important things we can do to reduce the number of veterans taking their own lives is to be a friend,” he said. “Reach out, make a call, ask, ‘What’s going on?’ To understand they need us but they sometimes can’t ask. To know there are wounds that can’t be seen. That’s what this organization is about.”
Lecce added that contrary to the popular myth that the holidays generally coincide with the highest suicide rates each year, she actually sees the number of high at-risk patients drop during the holiday season. She said this is in large part thanks to the simple fact that families reach out more during the holidays.
“What we’re trying to convey is that what happens during Christmastime is that people are just trying to be there for other people,” she said. “And that can help to prevent suicide. So we want people to do that all year.”
The Ruck March ended at Dryhootch, LCVFSF’s drop-in center in Grayslake. Foundation members, volunteers and participants remained at the center far into the late hours of the afternoon until the final walkers completed the trail, cheering them on as they crossed the parking lot and completed the last few steps of their hike.