NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 14, 2015) — Three Soldiers, who work at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center, have completed 200 miles of a ruck march from Boston to New York to raise awareness of veteran suicides.
Kristen Heavens, a Reserve first lieutenant who came up with the idea, Staff Sgt. Shaun Morand and Spc. Sonya Edler are part of a relay team from Active Heroes’ Carry the Fallen-Team Minuteman, which left Sept. 8, and are sharing the 220-mile march from the Massachusetts State House in Boston to New York’s Freedom Tower with approximately 50 pounds on their backs.
As of 6:15 a.m. Friday, the team was four miles away from the New York border. They should arrive in New York later on the 14th anniversary of 9/11 to raise awareness of veteran suicides and to remember all those who lost their lives on and since that fateful day in the fight against terrorism. They will then participate in the Carry the Fallen 9/11 Memorial Ruck in New York on Saturday.
Their hope is to reduce the 22 suicides occurring daily among veterans. That’s more than 8,000 each year, or in excess of 100,000 since 9/11. The Boston-New York ruck march symbolically covers 10 miles for each of the 22 daily suicides, and it takes place during National Suicide Prevention Week.
By doing the ruck march, Heavens, Morand and Edler are honoring Justin Fitch, the retired Army major, who finished his career at Natick and has terminal colon cancer. Fitch, the former Team Minuteman leader, has devoted his remaining days to ending veteran suicides. As they ruck march, the team is carrying Fitch’s gear.
“He wakes up to pain every, single day – physical, mental, everything,” said Heavens of Fitch. “Yet, he still chooses to drive on and still chooses to be positive.”
Fitch, now living in Wisconsin, is obviously touched by what his former teammates are doing in his name.
“I am humbled and honored by this meaningful effort from such great members of my team,” Fitch said. “While it has my name attached, it is not about me; it is about the 22-plus veterans committing suicide daily.”
The three Soldiers from Natick, who are using leave and vacation time to do this ruck march, are pushing their own limits. While all of them have done charity rucks in the past – including Heavens’ grueling 54.4-mile effort back and forth on the Boston Marathon course – none has tackled anything close to this epic trek through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Heavens’ and Morand’s home state of Connecticut, and New York.
“The distance that we’re traveling is much further than we’ll have traveled in the past,” Morand said. “You’ll ruck for six hours, then you’ll be logistics support for six hours, and then you’ll sleep for six hours.”
Three ruckers are marching at a time. They are followed by support crew in a pair of vans, one of which has seats removed to accommodate sleep.
On Saturday in New York, they will add a symbolic 9.11 miles in the 9/11 event.
“Getting started that morning is going to be tough,” Morand said. “Getting your feet going that morning is going to be tough.”
“We’ll make it through that,” Heavens said. “Nine miles after you’ve done 220 shouldn’t be tremendous. I mean, we can kind of push through that.”
If motivation wanes along the way, the three need only to remember the cause they are supporting.
“I think just the fact that we’ve got 22 veterans a day committing suicide is just appalling in this country,” Morand said. “So, something needs to be done, and to raise that awareness is, I think, such a high priority.”
Heavens agreed that it’s all about focusing attention on veteran suicides.
“One of the biggest things I always say is, everybody has their baggage – it’s all how you carry it,” Heavens said. “And this is to kind of symbolize that we’ll carry it with you. We want to help you, and we’re here for you. We’ll carry it for you.”