For a group taking on an issue as serious as suicide of veterans, the 20 or so veterans gathered for a 22-kilometer march through Corvallis were in a cheerful mood before the Saturday morning walk.
They introduced themselves to new people, talked about their service history, joked around and even poked gentle fun at the Coast Guard, the only service branch without a representative to carry its flag during the event.
“They’re probably all too busy having good lives to be here,” said one veteran.
But for Steven Olson, an Oregon State University student and U.S. Army veteran who organized the march, creating an opportunity for veterans to socialize with other veterans is exactly how to tackle the issue.
“You’ve got to think about how you fight against suicide and to me, community is the answer,” he said.
Olson, the treasurer of the university's Student Veterans Association, said the march's distance was inspired by the roughly 22 veterans who commit suicide each day. The group held a similar march last year, but it was much more informal. This year the group invited the public to join and had a Corvallis Fire Department escort for at least part of the march.
Olson, a communications student, added that a couple of his friends and fellow veterans have committed suicide, and the march was intended to build community among local veterans and to raise awareness of the issue of veteran suicide.
“We don’t really think about people who come home and lose the fight on their own. Those folks aren’t brought into the conversation on Memorial Day.”
Anthony Minniti, a mechanical engineering student and the president of the SVA, said having veterans build a community helps reduce their isolation, which not only helps prevent suicide, but can also keep student veterans from dropping out of school. He said it's valuable because veterans can connect with each other better than they can with someone who hasn’t served.
“I’m not going to unload all the crap in my life with some civilian who wouldn’t understand,” he said.
Minniti said he served in the U.S. Navy and his experiences weren’t even as bad as some.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t proud of what they had to do protecting this country,” he said.
Many, but not all, of the veterans carried rucksacks with 22 pounds or even 22 kilograms (48.5 pounds) of weight in them.
Olson said this was a way to honor friends lost to suicide.
“The weight also symbolizes the burden veterans carry,” Minnitti added.