Army veteran Ken Kasprzak, who has run 40 marathons, fully understands the importance of fitness in overcoming life stresses.
“Everyone knows there are 22 veterans who commit suicide every day — that’s shocking,” said Kasprzak, an 80-year-old Vietnam-era veteran who is commander of Post 355 in Grafton, Wis. “Anything we can do to come out and try to lessen that number and help people is what it’s all about. It’s also another way for me to get exercise. It keeps me young.”
For Kasprzak, the benefits of exercise are not just physical but also for mental wellness. It has helped him cope with stresses throughout his life such as family members passing away and the suffering he witnessed as a medical professional for 40 years.
Six years ago, Kasprzak lost his wife who endured a lengthy battle with liver disease.
“After my wife died, I didn’t even want to live. How did I get through it? Exercise,” he said. “It’s been my lifeblood for many, many years. Exercise has gotten me through so much. It’s been a lot of what has kept me mentally healthy.”
Kasprzak was among 30 American Legion Family members who participated in a 2.2-mile hike in Green Bay, Wis., on Jan. 12. The walk’s purpose was to raise awareness about the Legion’s Be the One initiative at the start of the Department of Wisconsin mid-winter conference.
Jim Johnson, a member of Post 82 in Port Washington and 2nd district commander, developed the concept for and oversaw the hike. Each walker carried a one-pound stone, representing a veteran who has been lost to suicide.
“We are here to honor the 22 who lose their struggle every day and support Be the One,” he said. “We’re trying to bring awareness to the Be the One campaign so other veterans know we are there for them. It’s important to The American Legion to be there for all veterans so they have a resource for someone to talk to.”
American Legion Past National Commander Denise Rohan also participated in the walk.
“When the Legion Family gets together, we get together for a purpose,” said Rohan, a member of Post 385 in Verona. “And that purpose today was to bring awareness to Be the One. We are going to have people asking, ‘What does that mean?’ It’s about being the one to listen and to take care of one another when we hear key words.”
She cited a famous quote from Bishop Desmond Tutu, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” That’s how to best approach reducing the rate of veteran suicide, Rohan said.
“One person at a time. It’s each one of us taking the time to do that. That’s what Be the One is all about to me. Just make a difference for that one person and you make a difference for their whole family and their community. It’s not just one person. We’re helping everybody.”
Activities like the hike are also vital to build and reinforce camaraderie among the participants. They walked together, strengthening their fitness, bonds and resolve.
“During our walk, each of you were being the one for each other,” Johnson said. “The No. 1 issue facing our community is veteran suicide. Know that we are not alone in our struggles, whatever they may be.”
After the walk, Legion Family members returned the stones to a Be the One display and held a brief but solemn ceremony.
“It was a great time during the walk but we also want to remember them. Please join me in honoring those who lost their internal battle,” Johnson said, asking for 22 seconds of silence in tribute to those who died of suicide.
The Be the One initiative aims to reduce the rate of veteran suicide by raising awareness of the issue, lessening the stigma around mental health treatment and empowering everyone to take appropriate action when a veteran is in crisis.
Kasprzak is committed not only to his daily exercise but being a resource for veterans, whether they know they need help or not.
“How did I get through all my struggles, especially with my wife dying? It’s with help from other people. And, if I can do the same for another veteran, I’ll jump on it.”
What you can do
• Review how you can “Be the One” to help a veteran in crisis, Betheone.org.
• Download and use promotional materials to spread awareness of the initiative, legion.org/betheone/resources.
• Share how you and/or your post are supporting Be the One at the Legiontown website.