Huskers and Hawkeyes are again 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 Huskers’ Memorial Stadium for the Nov. 23 game between the Big Ten institutions. The Things They Carry Ruck March, having started at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 17, will traverse 344 miles.
“We’re out here partnering with the University of Iowa to raise public awareness about an issue that is really important to all of us,” said Jake Post, president of Nebraska’s Student Veteran Organization and a sophomore who served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Veteran suicide is an issue that needs to be resolved and, to accomplish that, people need to know about it.”
According to data from 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 Nebraska-Iowa, student-led project is named a ruck in honor of a training technique 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 weigh 20 pounds or include 20 items symbolic of military service. That number symbolizes the federal figure that 20 veterans take their lives daily.
In Post’s ruck — or backpack — are items that represent his own service and that of his family members.
“My ruck contains a skivvy shirt that I had all my guys sign when I got out of the Marine Corps,” Post said. “I also have an ammo can that was my grandpa’s and is from World War II, ammo rounds collected by my dad, several challenge coins from my time in the service, and some miscellaneous camping gear — a compass and a flashlight.”
After covering about half of the distance, the Iowa team handed the ceremonial football off to the Nebraska team on Nov. 19 at Freedom Rock in Menlo, Iowa. Freedom Rock is a 12-foot-tall boulder located along Highway 25, near Menlo, Iowa. Established in 1999 by Ray Sorensen, an artist and veteran supporter, the boulder is repainted annually with a different thank you design honoring veterans’ service to the country.
Along the way, participants have found that the walk is resonating with veterans, family members and the general public.
“People are always driving by honking, waving and stopping to talk with us about what we are doing,” Post said. “They are very receptive. Some have been affected by veteran suicide and others just want to know more.
“We’ve only just started our part of the ruck, but this has already been a rewarding experience.”
Post said Nebraska’s participation in the event is an extension of the university’s focus on supporting veterans. The university is again in the top 30 of the Military Times Best: Colleges for veterans rankings, and Military Advanced Education and Transition’s 2017 guide to colleges and universities also designated Nebraska a Top School for following best practices in military and veteran education.
On campus, student veterans and family members can find assistance at Nebraska’s Military and Veteran Success Center, which is led by Darrell Everhart, a retired 25-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.
“Nebraska’s support system for student veterans and their family members is incredible,” Post said. “That transition from military life to civilian life can be difficult. If it weren’t for assistance from Darrell and his team, I probably wouldn’t have made it at the university.”
The ceremonial football is scheduled to arrive in Lincoln on Nov. 23. Members of both the Nebraska and Iowa ruck walk teams will walk the ball into Memorial Stadium during the Nov. 24 Big Ten’s Heroes rivalry game between the Huskers and Hawkeyes. Post said the ball will be handed to Bill Moos, Nebraska’s new athletics director. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.
For more information on student veteran support services available at Nebraska, click here.