There’s no need to explain veteran suicide impacts to Nebraska’s Everett Bloom.
Through four years of service as an aviation machinist mate in the U.S. Navy, Bloom worked alongside three fellow sailors who died of suicide.
“One was a really close friend of mine, another was a chief I worked under,” Bloom said. “And, the third was a sailor I knew at my first command on the USS George Washington.”
Those memories have weighed heavier this week as Bloom, a history and political science major in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Arts and Sciences, is helping lead the more than 50 veteran-connected volunteers participating in the annual Things They Carry Ruck March.
Now in its seventh year, the ruck is organized by student veteran groups from Nebraska U and the University of Iowa to raise awareness about veteran suicide. Volunteers split the journey, carrying a game ball to the host stadium for the annual Huskers-Hawkeyes football game — this year being held in Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 25.
The journey covers some 300 miles, passing through communities where the volunteers connect one-on-one with residents, media and anyone who wants to know more.
“Talking with media is a big part of our mission to raise awareness, but those direct conversations we have in the towns and along the roadside that are just as important,” Bloom said. “We take every opportunity to spread the word and help people understand why we are out here.”
Every volunteer in the ruck is asked to carry a backpack (or rucksack, the original term for a military backpack) that contains 20 pounds of weight and/or 20 personal items. That requirement is a reflection on a Veteran Administration report that every day, 20 American veterans take their own lives.
For the 2022 ruck, Bloom opted to carry 20 pounds of extra weight.
“There’s not a lot of stuff of personal significance in my pack this year,” Bloom said. “I do have patches on my pack from places I’ve served, along with my name and warfare insignia earned while in the military. And I’m also carrying challenge coins to hand out to people along the road.”
The Nebraska team, which started the ruck on Nov. 16 by the new Veterans’ Tribute, planned to cover about 40 miles a day in two shifts. The team will reach the halfway point at Freedom Rock near Menlo, Iowa, on Nov. 20. The Big Ten student veteran groups from the two schools come together at Freedom Rock every year, exchanging the game ball for the host team to carry the remaining 150 miles.
The 2021 event was Bloom’s first. He walked nearly 50 miles in 2021 and planned to cover about 80 this year.
“Some of the legs are definitely harder than others — those where the wind is in your face and you have to climb some tough hills,” Bloom said. “But, in those moments, I try to find beauty in the small things and I enjoy the camaraderie of walking with other members of the team.
“It gives us time to reflect on what we are doing, that this is something bigger than yourself.”
On campus, Bloom said the connections he’s made through the ruck and the university’s Military and Veteran Success Center have helped keep him focused and moving forward.
“I was struggling to find my community here and I attended a meeting at the Veteran Success Center kind of by fluke,” Bloom said. “It led to me to a great group of people who are now my closest friends here at UNL.
“Finding that support system has been tremendously important to me. Without it, I don’t know where I would be — probably just stuck going through the motions of attending class and hitting homework deadlines.”
He expects that circle of support will expand this year through his work helping to organize and participate in the 2022 ruck.
“We’re here to spread the word about veteran suicides, but it’s also about us coming together as a team and building that camaraderie that makes military service special,” Bloom said. “We have a lot of new faces this year and I look forward to connecting with them, hearing their stories, talking about their service, and remembering why each of us is here.”