By Jim Newell
Review Staff Writer
They carried on their backs rucksacks weighing between 25-40 pounds. They trudged through the heat, the humidity, the bursts of rain and sunshine, often smiling, often thinking they would not make it.
Twenty-two miles: a symbolic number for the approximately 22 military veterans who commit suicide each day.
Veterans, family members and friends marched 22 miles from Lapeer VFW Post 4139 to the Veteran’s Memorial in Lake Orion on Aug. 13 in the Ruck for the Fallen march.
“Being a veteran, not everyone was as lucky as me, to come home and have such a supportive family,” said Lake Orion resident James Bambard, U.S. Marine Corps, ’03-‘07.
“We want to let them know that they’re not alone and to reach out for help. And there’s always other avenues besides the VA (Veteran’s Administration) for help,” Bambard said.
A 2012 Suicide Data Report by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs discovered that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
Proceeds from the hike go to #22Kill, a non-profit veterans group founded after the report was released. #22Kill seeks to raise awareness to the suicide epidemic and educate the public on mental health issues such as PTS, according the www.22kill.com website.
#22Kill also serves as a resource to connect veterans with programs and services in their local area.
“The veterans and their families have carried the psychological scars of war all their lives,” said Joe Mastromatteo, a Lake Orion resident, local dentist and veteran, U.S. Army, ‘60-‘62, Korea. “It’s a suicide awareness march, but more than that it’s for them (veterans with PTSD or depression) to know they are not alone in this.”
Devon Pontioas and Alexia Locke, who helped with event organization, said 39 marchers participated in the walk, with volunteers manning stations along the way providing drinks and encouragement.
This is the first such walk held in Lake Orion, Mastromatteo said.
Locke said #22Kill gives veterans “A place to go without having to go to the VA. A lot of veterans don’t like going to the VA.”
The marchers finished at the Veterans Memorial in Lake Orion, welcomed by Mastromatteo and a cadre of volunteers, fellow marchers and supporters. They were rewarded with Iced Tea from Starbucks and pastries from Hollywood Market and Kroger of Lake Orion.
But Mastromatteo knows there were rewards less tangible that brought them out and kept them going.
“Imagine walking 22 miles with that on your back,” said Joe Mastromatteo. “People I talked to with muscles aching, sore feet, sore backs…they said they would do it again.”
Mastromatteo is the chairman of the Orion Veterans Memorial. When he was asked if the marchers could use the memorial as their finish line, Mastromatteo said he did not hesitate. “For god’s sake, that’s what we built it for. For purposes like this.”
By Jim Newell