Photo by Clay Lomneth/The American Legion

A 20-mile march to save veterans’ lives

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Names of fallen U.S. servicemembers were displayed on ruck sacks carried by veterans, active-duty military personnel and family members as they marched through the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago to bring awareness to a growing epidemic.

The 1,600 participants of the fourth annual Chicago Veterans: Ruck March on May 26 laced up their combat boots and walking shoes to raise awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide by walking 20 miles – one mile for every veteran that commits suicide daily.

“I’m walking for all my buddies who served and because it’s for a great cause – you have all these military people coming together to bring awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide,” said Detrall Dearbone, 5th District commander for The American Legion Department of Illinois and two-time ruck march participant. “It’s exciting, and we talk, we laugh, and I’ve met so many friends from this.”

Chicago Veterans: Ruck March participants, most of them post-9/11 veterans, gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Glencoe, Ill., to begin their more than six-hour walk that traveled along Lake Michigan, by universities and through the busy streets of Chicago. As the walkers packed their 20-plus pound ruck sacks and gathered their American and military flags for marching, many of them adorned a poppy on their ruck sacks which was given to them by Illinois Legion leadership in support of the Legion's first National Poppy Day. The symbolic flower honors all who have served and sacrificed in the U.S. armed forces.

“We have a whole new generation now that will understand and respect the poppy … that’s a cool thing and nice that (Friday) happened to be poppy day,” said Past National Commander and Department Adjutant Marty Conatser.

Members from the department came to the event to show their support for today’s generation of veterans and to provide water, bananas, and information on Legion membership and programs to participants during their lunch break on the waterfront at Centennial Memorial Park in Evanston, Ill.

“We talk about the need to get new (Legion) members, especially younger veterans, and here is a great way for us to promote who The American Legion is and how we can help them,” said Gary Jenson, Department of Illinois assistant adjutant, who was there to speak with the veterans with Membership Director Chad Woodburn and service officer Wayne Macejak.

“We are here to show that we support them and we are here for them; that’s what’s really important,” Conatser said. “When you look around they are marching for each other and the camaraderie they are missing from being in the service. That’s why if you belong to a Legion post, you’re with people like you. These are the kind of events that (The American Legion) has to be a part of.”

The ruck march was organized by Chicago Veterans, a nonprofit that “empowers veterans to take control of their transition throughout life" by providing camaraderie, and education and employment assistance. Only 25 veterans participated in the first Chicago Veterans: Ruck March, so the significant growth in four years has made Legionnaire and Chicago Veterans President Kevin Barszcz “incredibly proud to see our veteran community come together to help end the veteran suicide epidemic. I am honored to have served with these incredible men and women who took an oath to service, both in and out of uniform,” said Barszcz, a member of Tattler Post 973 in Chicago. “The overall mission of this march is to hopefully save a life.”

The Chicago ruck march on Friday was the third one to participate in for Post 973 Vice Commander CJ Seestadt, who carried a list of names of fallen comrades, and a first for the post's Americanism officer and Illinois National Guardsman Patrick Murray.

“I personally know three soldiers that committed suicide, so I’m marching for those comrades,” Murray said. “The American Legion brings you another support network when you’re away from your military family so it’s important to be here for exposure, to let people know we are here for them.”

Showing support for America’s veterans and servicemembers was a statement shared by all about why they were walking, along with the event's mission being for a good cause – awareness for the veterans who have fallen on the home front, as well as the battlefield.

Three names of fallen heroes adorned the ruck sacks of Team Buddy Check, a group of 16 active and retired servicemembers and civilians led by Army Capt. Christina Rudolph.

“We do a buddy check every month with my unit where I reach out (on Facebook) and tag everybody and ask ‘Are you ok? How are you?’” Rudolph said. “So today we are walking to celebrate life because that’s what’s important – to let people know who battle issues that they are not alone.”

Legionnaire Lenny Jakubiak led his command of 21 Young Marines from Chicago on the walk, as it will be these veterans and servicemembers shoes that they will soon be following. So the walk was an opportunity to “give them a little insight about what to expect (in the military) and the hardships everyone has,” he said. This was Jakubiak’s second time to participate in the ruck march, and each time it’s been to “remember my fallen friends.”

After the ruck march concluded outside the Lincoln Park Zoo, veterans, servicemembers and military supporters received their dog tag medal, unloaded their heavy ruck sacks and embraced each other. Barszcz hoped that the mission of the ruck march to bring awareness to PTSD and veteran suicide was seen and heard throughout Chicago.

“If we can improve the livelihood of just one of our fellow veterans then this whole ruck march was worth it,” he said. “Our brothers and sisters need to know that they don’t have to struggle with PTSD alone – they have an army of veterans who are here for them.”