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Volunteers walk 22 miles to raise awareness of veteran suicides

Union photo by Andy Hallman

From left, Mary Brenneman, Steven Handwerker and John Van De Walker march down Walnut Street in Mt. Pleasant, the final leg of their 22-mile journey from Middletown to Mt. Pleasant. The group walked 22 miles to raise awareness of the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
Union photo by Andy Hallman From left, Mary Brenneman, Steven Handwerker and John Van De Walker march down Walnut Street in Mt. Pleasant, the final leg of their 22-mile journey from Middletown to Mt. Pleasant. The group walked 22 miles to raise awareness of the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
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MT. PLEASANT — Motorists traveling on Highway 34 east of Mt. Pleasant Saturday, Nov. 2, might have noticed a small group of people walking on the shoulder, followed by a support vehicle.

Those people were walking to raise awareness of veteran suicides. The group started walking at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Middletown at about 7 a.m., and ended their 22-mile journey at about 1:20 p.m. at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Mt. Pleasant.

They walked 22 miles because that number, 22, is how many veterans commit suicide every day. The event was sponsored by Healing of English River Outfitters (HERO). It was originally scheduled for September as that is Suicide Awareness Month, but lightning was reported that day, forcing the organizers to postpone it until November.

This is the second year HERO has conducted a 22-mile walk from Middletown to Mt. Pleasant. The first year saw a turnout of 80 people, including 24 who walked the entire distance. This year, because of the postponement and the cold weather, the turnout was modest with three walkers, but that didn’t dampen the participants’ spirits.

Nichols resident Mary Brenneman, one of the walkers, said it was the farthest she had ever walked in a day. She said she used to do the 12-mile March of Dimes walk years ago, but she had never done anything quite like this. The group took a break about halfway in between the two towns at New London. Brenneman said the wind was a bit of a problem on the open highway, and some parts of the shoulder were very muddy.

“After about 12 miles, my legs began tightening, and the cold weather did not help,” she said.

John Van De Walker, of West Burlington, participated in the walk, too. He mentioned that walks of this length were common during his military service. He said his platoon went on 25-mile marches while carrying a weapon and a 35-pound rucksack. Granted, Van De Walker has been out of the military for nine years, but he’s stayed in good shape doing physical work as a mechanic, so he’s accustomed to spending the day on his feet.

Van De Walker is a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, a group that has conducted 200-mile motorcycle rides for veterans. The proceeds of its events go toward suicide prevention and to the families of veterans who have committed suicide.

Steven Handwerker drove all the way from Chicago to attend the event. Handwerker served with Van De Walker, and feels strongly about raising awareness of veteran suicides.

“I came to support our sisters and brothers,” Handwerker said.

HERO helps veterans in a number of ways. The organization has a hotline veterans can call when they’re in crisis and need help. HERO uses its funds to educate veterans so they can be peer supporters of those struggling with mental health issues. The group holds fishing and hunting outings, and retreats for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

HERO member Dave Lewis said his nephew committed suicide, and he hopes that events like Saturday’s encourage people struggling with a mental health crisis to come forward, armed with the knowledge there are people willing to help them.

Lewis said he’s found that veterans are hesitant to seek treatment in a clinical setting, but are much more willing to open up about their experiences around a campfire with other veterans. Lewis recalled one incident where a veteran shot a deer on one of HERO’s hunts. That night, the other veterans asked him about the hunt. The man began telling the story of the hunt, but that quickly segued into stories about his military career that he hadn’t spoken about before.

“A lot of guys are at the end of their rope, and it’s hard to put into words the stress they’re going through,” Lewis said.

Lewis remarked that HERO is searching for leadership in the wake of the death of the organization’s president and founder Chuck Geertz, who was killed in a motorcycle accident almost three months ago. Lewis said work is continuing on HERO’s lodge at Sockum Ridge, the logs for which were delivered Thursday, Oct. 31. Lewis said the organization can always use donations and volunteers.