Over Thanksgiving, student veterans from the University of Alabama and Auburn University came together to walk 151 miles from Nov. 24-27 for Operation Iron Ruck 2021. The mission of the ruck is to raise awareness about veteran suicide.
“The heavy stress of the hike is symbolic of the challenges that veterans with thoughts of suicide face every day,” Slade Salmon, president of University of Alabama’s Campus Veterans Association, said to UA News Center. “The camaraderie that is built between the veterans of both universities during this event has led to lifelong friendships and a greater network of veterans helping veterans.”
About 80 students from the University of Alabama Campus Veterans Association and the Auburn University Student Veterans Association left Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa last Wednesday for their final destination of Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. Each student carried a ruck sack weighing between 17-22 pounds to represent the veterans who die by suicide daily. The toiletry, socks and other comfort items in the ruck sacks, along with snacks, drinks and catered food for the student veterans were made possible by an American Legion Department of Alabama Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) grant. Items in the ruck sacks will be donated to homeless veterans through the nonprofit Three Hots and a Cot and the Tuskegee Veterans Community Living Center.
"Without the (OCW) grant, a lot of things wouldn't have taken place," said Alabama District 22 Commander Linda Lee. The student veterans "were overwhelmed with the thank yous."
Leadership from the Department of Alabama provided the student veterans with camaraderie and logistical support, which included driving a support truck, and they delivered meals. For example, the grant provided and Alabama Legionnaires delivered breakfast, lunch and dinners to the student veterans, which included a Thanksgiving dinner with ham, turkey, dressing, desserts and more. "We just laid out a beautiful spread for them," Lee shared. A Legionnaire who lived close by the resting stop where the veterans ate the Thanksgiving meal warmed up the turkey, ham and dressing in his home before it was served. "The students sat down and ate. They just enjoyed themselves," said Lee, who drove to the various restaurants to pick up and deliver the meals. "They really appreciated it; they really did. They were so thankful that (American Legion) Operation Comfort Warriors was providing all of this for them."
Besides ruck sacks, other items the students carried were dog tags with names of servicemembers who died by suicide, as well as the official game ball for the 86th Iron Bowl game between Alabama and Auburn last Saturday. They handed off the game ball at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
“By supporting Operation Iron Ruck, we are helping to increase the awareness of suicide among veterans. And letting veterans know that there is help for them,” said Lee, who shared with the students stories of veterans and others who have lost their life to suicide. "When you hear these things (people saying they are going to take their life) you have to take them seriously. People are crying out for help. When we don’t take them seriously they don’t realize the resources that are there for them. We have to comfort them and let them know there is help available."
Salmon said, “A large contributor to veteran suicide is isolation. Part of our message that we want the public to take away is to reach out to veterans and just ask how they are doing.”
While Lee spent a lot of time with the student veterans from Auburn University and Alabama University, including buying them ponchos when it rained and sitting around a campfire sharing military service stories, next year she plans to make the entire Operation Iron Ruck 151-mile walk with them.
"The time I spent with them, it was amazing. I told every one of the veterans that we couldn't have done it without (American Legion) Operation Comfort Warriors."