While most American families gathered around the table to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, nearly 80 student veterans of the University of Alabama and Auburn University were walking over 150 miles across the state of Alabama to raise awareness for the estimated 22 veterans who commit suicide each day in the United States. Supporting them in this mission was The American Legion’s Department of Alabama, which provided logistical and emotional support every step of the way, including driving a truck and trailer that had food and water for the ruck marchers at each stop.
“Operation Iron Ruck is 151-mile ruck march, and this year we did it from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Auburn University” said Slade Salmon, president of the Campus Veterans Association at the University of Alabama and a four-year infantry veteran of the Marine Corps. Salmon is studying Operations Management and hopes to graduate with a master’s degree in 2021.
“The reason we’re doing this is, for those that don’t know, 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States of America, we want to raise awareness to that fact, but we also want veterans to understand that it’s OK to ask for help,” Salmon said. “If you’re going through a rough time, reach out to a relative, reach out to a buddy, reach out to someone you served with, and ask for help. You can also reach out to the (Department of Veterans Affairs), they have the suicide hotline and other resources that can help you. And for those who have (veterans) as relatives, reach out to them and make sure they’re doing all right. If you see a veteran who’s acting differently, ask him if he’s okay, ask him if he needs help.”
He talked about the three main things they brought with them on the march.
“So we carried a few things on Operation Iron Ruck” Salmon said. “The first thing, and foremost, we carried the 22-pound ruck sack, and that is symbolic of the 22 veterans who die by suicide every day in the United States of America. We also carried 22 blank dog tags that signify the 22 a day as well.”
The packed rucks consisted of toiletries, undergarments and other items that were donated to homeless veterans through a non-profit in Birmingham: “Three Hots and a Cot.”
The last item they carried was an object that carries an almost religious significance in the football-obsessed state: the official game ball for the Iron Bowl, the annual meeting of the two universities on the gridiron. The group handed the ball off to game officials prior to the game’s coin toss.
Along the route, many Alabamians showed up to voice their support and shower the marchers with well wishes. The state police provided support by escorting the group, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a proclamation declaring Nov. 30, 2019 as Operation Iron Ruck Day in the state.
“Since our country’s inception, our military members have shown their patriotism, their bravery, and ultimately, their willingness to lay their lives on the line for the sake of protecting our freedoms,” Ivey said. “That sacrifice does not end in combat, because even when our men and women return safely home, many continue to struggle with the impacts of war. Sadly, in our country, suicide claims the lives of around 22 veterans each day. I urge Alabamians and people all across our country to continue fighting for those who fight for us. I am proud to see this committed group of students from Alabama and Auburn come together to bring awareness to this issue facing veterans in our country.”
“It is fantastic that the Alabama and Auburn student veterans’ associations set aside their rivalry to work together to raise awareness about the veteran suicide rate by marching the 150 miles from stadium to stadium,” said Kent Davis, Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs commissioner. “The ruck sacks these veterans will carry symbolize the 22 veterans lost each day to suicide.”
Salmon said the Operation Iron Ruck participants broke themselves up into three groups. “We called them Team Red, Team White and Team Blue” he said. “And the way we did this was kind of like middle school leap frog. Team Red would go the first seven miles, then get picked up in RVs and other support vehicles, and then Team White would go out from their changeover spot, go seven miles, get picked up … and then team blue would start off.”
As each roughly seven mile long leg took about 2.5 to 3 hours, there was barely any time to get sufficient sleep, and each team tallied over 50 miles in total.
“In our downtime we would alternate between support and sleep, but both of those just kind of turned into sleep” Salmon said with a laugh. “Honestly, we were pretty worn out. There was a whole lot of sleep deprivation going around.”
“The hardest part about walking 150 miles was definitely when we were out there in the middle of the night and there was nothing to look at, nothing to see and so you’re just walking this long stretch of road” said Evan Prosise, vice president of the Campus Veterans Association at Alabama and an Air Force veteran.
The Iron Ruck provided Prosise with some very rewarding moments. “When we went to all these towns and neighborhoods and you see all these people supporting us, coming out to show their respect for the military and veterans and helping us stay motivated throughout the duration of the ruck,” he said.
Prosise called The American Legion’s support “a godsend. Last year we did this ruck and we didn’t have a lot of financial support and to really help us through this ruck. [This year] The American Legion came in and said ‘what do you guys need? This is going to be something where if you guys ask for it, we’ll try our hardest to get it for you.’ And they pulled through. They got us the financial support we were looking for, they got us the food and the water and helped us during the ruck. It was a great experience to see The American Legion come out and help us in such an amazing way. And I know Auburn and the University of Alabama are so grateful for everything they’ve done for us.”
For American Legion Department Adjutant Greg Akers, a post-9/11 veteran, it was a great project to get involved in and provide support. “We became involved in Operation Iron Ruck because we actually started a post at the University of Alabama, and at the first post meeting this was presented as one of the projects” he said. “It’s very important we get involved on college campuses because this is where today’s veterans are at. We’re getting out, we’re going to college, we’re getting smarter and moving forward in our careers and we need the Legion now more than ever.”
Marine Corps veteran Christopher Gill also took part in the ruck. A graduate student at the University of Alabama studying Educational Psychology and hoping to specialize in military transition, he enjoyed the grueling march.
“My feet are burning and my back’s a little tight, but it feels good to be here” Gill said. “It’s been a really great time being out with fellow veterans just really enjoying the camaraderie and being out there marching for a good cause.
“Coming into Auburn was everything I expected as an Alabama student. My wife went to Auburn as did both of her sisters, and (Auburn fans) have always been a great group and very welcoming. It was that very positive rivalry going on, there was no negativity whatsoever. Everybody was out there cheering us on for a great cause. ”
Gill was also appreciative of the efforts of the Legion. “While we were doing the Iron Ruck there was a Legion truck with a trailer full of water, snacks, fruit and stuff like that to help us keep up the energy we needed,” he said. “And they had an amazing crew and were very supportive out there cheering us on and making sure we everything we need. The American Legion support has been invaluable. As a student veteran and as a marcher I can’t appreciate it more than I do. It was amazing.”
For Navy Special Warfare veteran Jonathan Housand, a junior at Auburn studying kinesiology, the most rewarding part of Operation Iron Ruck was being with other veterans from both schools. “It’s a good cause we all know,” he said. “The big deal for me about doing the Iron Ruck is that everyone kind of knows someone that is involved or has a personal experience with suicide or mental illness. And we can all relate if not themselves than others, and for those that wanted to come out and do such a feat, that needed an extra push, we’re not alone.
“It felt really good to make the final stretch coming in. I think as you get started you think ‘man, what the heck did I get myself into?’ That last little stretch was really wonderful. When you make it, it’s quite a feeling.”
For Akers, it was a great opportunity to get the Legion out there and support the student veterans.
“They may not have the time to be a Legionnaire now, but there’s going to be a time when they want to give back, and it shows here,” Akers said. “The whole purpose of this mission is to give back, so they’re actually doing what a Legion post does without being a Legion post. So out of this though we’re in the process of building the Auburn University post.”
As for the game itself, one of the premiere intrastate rivalries in the country, this year 15th-ranked Auburn defeated No. 5 Alabama in a classic 48-45 slugfest. The game was a fitting end to a 150-mile journey.