Veterans are focus of Nebraska, Iowa team-up
Huskers and Hawkeyes are hitting the pavement to raise awareness about veteran suicides.
Organized by student veteran organizations at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Iowa, more than 200 volunteers are walking a ceremonial football to the Hawkeyes' Kinnick Stadium for the Nov. 25 game between the Big Ten institutions. The "Things They Carry Ruck March," having started at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 17, will traverse 347 miles.
"We're always looking for ways to reach out and support veterans, so when Iowa called and asked if we were interested in participating in a ruck walk, we immediately said yes," said Sgt. Katie Howser, a senior veterinary science major who is president of Nebraska's Student Veteran Organization and is a six-year member of the U.S. Army reserves. "We wanted to get the message out there about veteran suicides. And, with Nebraska being such a big football school, we knew something related to football would help raise awareness."
According to data released in July by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, roughly 20 veterans nationwide commit suicide each day. In 2014, the most recent year data is available, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives. That total translates to 18 percent of all suicides in America in 2014. Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. population.
The student-led project is named a ruck in honor of a training method that sends soldiers on long hikes wearing heavy packs. Volunteers — which include students, veterans, family and friends — walk in shifts, covering about 40 miles a day while wearing backpacks that weight 22 pounds or include 22 items symbolic of military service. That number symbolizes the previous federal figure that 22 veterans take their lives daily.
In Iowa, the ruck marchers are also promoting Operation Engage America, a nonprofit started by family members of veterans who committed suicide. The group offers support and assistance related to post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries to veterans, their families and first responders.
The organizers are also discovering that the event is helpful to participating veterans and their families.
"So many people have had a friend or relative affected by a veteran suicide," said Howser, who is a student veteran peer mentor in Nebraska's Military and Veteran Success Center. "It's been great being able to talk to them through this experience."
Community members have also made the walk memorable.
"People are always cheering for and giving us cookies or stuff like that when we pass through a community," Howser said. "That support and knowing we are spreading the word about this important issue has made this a special event."
After covering nearly half the distance, the Nebraska team handed the ball off to the Iowa team on Nov. 21 at Freedom Rock in Menlo, Iowa. Some of the Nebraska team members will continue on to Iowa City and participate in the exchange in the stadium.
Members of both teams hope to make the ruck walk an annual event, linking it to the Heroes rivalry game played annually between the two universities.
For more information on student veteran support services available at Nebraska, click here.