Every day, an average of 20 U.S. soldiers — from active duty and reserves to National Guard and retired veterans — die by suicide.
That stat weighs heavy on Jake Post, a retired U.S. Marine and president of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Student Veteran Organization.
“I’ve lost quite a few military friends to suicide — enough to count on two hands,” Post said. “It’s something I carry with me every day. It’s something too many people carry with them each and every day.”
To help raise awareness about military suicides, Post and other Nebraska veterans are teaming up with University of Iowa colleagues for the Things They Carry Ruck March. Organized by student veteran organizations at both universities, the third annual event will feature some 200 volunteers walking a ceremonial football to Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium for the Nov. 23 game between the Big Ten rivals.
The walk will kick off at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 14 with a brief ceremony at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.
“We’re partnering again with the University of Iowa to raise public awareness,” Post said. “Veteran suicide is an issue that needs to be resolved and, to accomplish that, people need to first know about it.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, roughly 20.6 military servicemembers die by suicide daily. Based on figures from 2005 to 2015, that total includes 16.8 veterans and 3.8 active-duty, National Guard and reserves soldiers. It amounts to 6,132 veterans and 1,387 servicemembers each year.
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 from 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, a plaque from my guys when I got out, several challenge coins from my time in the service, and a pair of boots.”
After covering about half of the distance, the Husker team will hand the ceremonial football off to the Hawkeyes on Nov. 18. The exchange will take place at Freedom Rock, 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 painted with a design honoring veterans.
During the walk, veterans, family members and the public will also participate with the students.
“It’s open for anybody and everybody to participate,” Post said. “People will drive by honking or waving. Some stop to talk with us about what we’re doing, and there’s always people who join us for a mile or two because they have been affected by veteran suicide.”
Individuals can also volunteer and learn more about the event, including the path that will be walked each day, on the Things They Carry Ruck March website.
Nebraska’s participation in the event is an extension of the university’s focus on supporting veterans. The university is ranked in the top 25 of the Military Times Best: Colleges for veterans rankings and Military Advanced Education and Transition’s most recent 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. The center, located in the Nebraska Union, is led by Joe Brownell, who served as an executive officer in the U.S. Air Force and brings 28 years of strategic and organizational leadership experience to the post.
The ceremonial football is scheduled to arrive in Iowa City on Nov. 23. Members of both the Nebraska and Iowa ruck walk teams will walk the ball into Kinnick Stadium during the Nov. 23 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 11 a.m.