Florida Post 63’s suicide prevention event gives hope to veterans

View Photo Gallery

About six years ago, Kurt Gies received an email that put him and Hugh T. Gregor American Legion Post 63 in Winter Garden, Fla., on a path to raising nearly $250,000 to help prevent veteran suicide.

The email made Gies aware that 22 veterans die by suicide a day, and it encouraged him to walk in awareness of veteran suicide. So on a September day in 2016 he set out on the West Orange Trail through Winter Garden to do just that. He walked alone.

“When you’re walking alone, that is what suicide to me is all about … they’re isolated, they’re hopeless, they don’t feel like they’re worth anything,” said Gies, commander of American Legion Post 63. “We all know that that’s not true because of what they’re going through they’re not able to understand that. Their only option is to take their life.”

On the walk Gies thought that if he, a retired U.S. Navy officer, didn’t know about the 22 veterans dying daily by suicide, then how could the community know. It was from that moment that he vowed to bring veteran suicide awareness to the Winter Garden community and to not walk alone the following year in awareness of it.

On Saturday, Nov. 13, Post 63 held its fifth annual Challenge 22 veteran suicide awareness event, where hundreds of Legion Family members, veterans, their families and community members walked 2.2 miles with Gies, his dog Zona and the American flag given to him by his two children before his deployment overseas after 9/11. The walk took participants through downtown Winter Garden on a warm, sunny morning, where Legion Riders followed along, cars honked, and people stood on the sidewalk or got up from their outdoor dining seats to clap and salute.

“I wanted to get the community involved because to me The American Legion’s whole basis is veterans serving veterans, and engaging the community to help solve veteran problems,” Gies said. “We are veterans strengthening America, but we can’t do it without community.”

Post 63’s Challenge 22 event was held at Veterans Memorial Park in Winter Garden from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. While there, participants could meet with veteran resource vendors, visit the Patriot Guard Riders Vietnam Memorial Wall, donate blood at the Red Cross bus, and enjoy a BBQ lunch, live band, raffle drawings and activities for children. The birthdays of two World War II veterans were also celebrated with singing and cupcakes. Mel Jenner, who turned 99, flew 45 combat missions in the European Theater. And Gilbert Waganheim, who turned 100, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate the Mauthausen Nazi concentration camp. As someone who still walks twice a day, Waganheim was at the front of the Challenge 22 walk alongside Gies.

Before the walk got underway, Gies stood on stage to share why the Challenge 22 event got started, how it’s grown beyond awareness to include fundraising, and his reason for pushing on when it’s easy to ask yourself “why are we doing this?” after spending six months and about 60 hours a week – on top of a full-time job – planning it alongside his wife, Lana.

“The answer is … our comrades served and when they decide they want to take their life somebody needs to be there and say to them, ‘We’re here for you, we love you, we support you and your life is too valuable, don’t take it. Then the enemy wins,’” Gies said. “Our why is this is an epidemic that nobody knows about that we have to stop.”

As a somber reminder of the need to prevent veteran suicide, American Legion Lady Lake Post 347’s honor guard provided a graveside memorial service. They presented a U.S. flag to Gies that he in turn gave to Eric Winstead, whose nephew died by suicide a few years ago while serving in the military. The service was followed by a three-volley salute and the playing of Taps.

“It’s not fair,” said Gies, who also reflected upon a woman he met who lost her father-in-law, husband and son, who served in the U.S. Army, to suicide. “We have to give them hope. We have to let them know that what they’re going through there is an answer and we are going to be there for them.”

On the walk were friends Victor Placido, Jason Breidinger and Dale Krbec who participated to raise awareness about veteran suicide and to let veterans know they are not alone. “If you’re a veteran and you suffer from PTSD, we’re here to support you. It’s better than walking alone,” said Placido, a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War and a member of Post 63 who has lost comrades from his military unit to suicide. “That’s the thing with PTSD: you want somebody there to support you, you don’t want to do it by yourself. You didn’t go to combat by yourself, you went as a group. So when you come back and you need that support, it’s important as a group and not by yourself.

Breidinger, a Marine veteran who was part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and whose son, Justin, also served in the Marines, does all he can to support veterans, “especially when it comes to veteran suicide.” This includes weekly ruck marches as part of the Marine Corps League out of Orlando. “I do everything I can to prevent (veteran suicide) moving forward in life.”

Placido added that “As veterans we try to do things by ourselves because we’re stubborn, we don’t realize that we need help. At the end of the day, we might not be in the capacity to ask for the help but we should know that it’s available for us. To get the support we need.”

The opportunity to let veterans in crisis know that resources are available, and directing them to those resources, is why Post 63’s Challenge 22 event is about fundraising as much as it’s about awareness. 

Challenge 22 donations aid suicide prevention efforts. Gies said that as veterans “we can’t fix each other, but we sure as heck can help guide our comrades who are suffering find the help that they need.” So Challenge 22 donations currently help fund about eight nonprofits in the state that address veteran suicide and other mental health needs through specific programs. Donations go to the American Legion Department of Florida’s PROJECT: VetRelief program, which disperses the funds on a quarterly basis to these nonprofits aiding in veteran suicide prevention efforts.

One of these funded nonprofits is SOF Missions.

SOF Missions focuses on preventing veteran suicide through a whole-health method by addressing psychological, physical, social and spiritual wellness. Gies went through the program to see what it was like before partnering with them for Challenge 22 funds. He particularly liked that the program touched on spiritual wellness. The American Legion “is for God and Country … the VA doesn’t touch on that,” he said. “The moral injuries that we suffer from combat have to be addressed.”

Brendan Sheehan, a Gulf War Navy veteran who was onsite to speak with attendees about SOF Missions, initially wanted to volunteer with the program. It was suggested that he go through it first. “Of course me at that point – ‘I don’t need help’ until you start to realize you need help,” he shared. “It was very opening and it’s still hard, but it’s easier.” Sheehan said the program has made him “feel different. You have that community of not only people and volunteers and doctors but other vets. A lot of the guys that I went through the clinic with we text each other constantly ‘Hey, how are you doing? Anything I can help you with?’”

Gies said that “each individual person has a unique story and a unique way of being healed.” For veterans that come to The American Legion with mental health needs, “We basically give them the menu (list of programs that Challenge 22 donations help fund like SOF Missions) of what they want to do and we just make sure it’s paid for.”

Challenge 22 success gains attention statewide. The success of Post 63’s Challenge 22 event has caught on and inspired several other American Legion posts in Florida to conduct their own and to support PROJECT: VetRelief for veteran suicide prevention efforts. After only four months of planning, Legion Family members of Post 382 in Navaare recently held their first Challenge 22 event with a 2.2-mile walk, 22-mile bike ride and a picnic with hopes of raising $22,000.

Post 382 raised $40,000.

“We did not know what to expect at all with our first annual; we were prepared to be disappointed, but the community came together … it was awesome,” said Jason Skobel, the Legion Riders Chapter 382 director who saw what Gies was doing with Challenge 22 and wanted to emulate that in Navaare. “My wife said that if our event doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, if we touched or saved one life today, our event was a success. And I believe we succeeded in our event.”

Sonny Decker, 1st District commander and Post 382 member, said that weeks after the October Challenge 22 event people in the Navaare community were still talking about it “which is what we want to raise awareness. We are getting so much community support, it is unbelievable. It’s why we do what we do … it is veterans serving veterans.”

Skobel and Decker said they are looking forward to next year’s Post 382 Challenge 22 event, hoping to make it even bigger.  

“We have a model, and we’ll share that with anybody,” Gies said. “(The Challenge 22 event) is anything you want it to be. The purpose is to engage your community, to let them know what’s going on, to raise funds, to make people aware of veteran suicide.  

“Are you ready to help today? Let’s end this epidemic now!”