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Student veterans in Alabama began a more than 150-mile ruck march on Wednesday from Tuscaloosa to Auburn to raise awareness for the estimated 17 veterans lost to each day to suicide.
The fourth annual Operation Iron Ruck — which features students from the University of Alabama and Auburn University — kickstarted outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium Wednesday in Tuscaloosa and will conclude Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn just before the rival schools’ football teams face off in the Iron Bowl.
The 72-hour march consists of marchers from both schools, most carrying a 17-pound rucksack containing donated items that will be given to charities which benefit Alabama veterans.
University of Alabama Veterans Association President Slade Salmon and Auburn University Student Affairs Association President Clay Buchanan are spearheading the effort.
“The event spans the course of three days, and our objective is to raise public awareness of veteran suicide, with the secondary objective of raising donations for national, state and local veteran charity organizations,” Salmon told Fox News about the march.
Salmon said the event is “a way for us to memorialize the 17 veterans who die everyday due to suicide” and noted that he uses the event to reconnect with those he served with.
“I’m not great at staying in touch with a lot of people I served with, but I make an effort to reach out during this time,” Salmon said. “Isolation is a major factor in veteran suicide. Reaching out to those we served with could be the catalyst in saving a life.”
Operation Iron Ruck recently partnered with Alabama’s Challenge for Preventing Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families.
“Many veterans, myself included, personally know another veteran or service member who have succumbed to suicide,” Buchanan told Fox News. “Through Operation Iron Ruck and the collaboration of the student veterans of Auburn and Alabama, it truly shows that the veteran community is strong and committed to take care of our brothers and sisters until 17 becomes zero.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has voiced support for the march organizers’ efforts, saying in a statement, “It is imperative that, as a nation, we never forget to offer our support to the brave men and women who have served our country in the military.”
“We must put a greater focus on preventing veteran suicide and on supporting these brave men and women after they return home, which is why I am so proud of the efforts of our student veterans embarking on Operation Iron Ruck,” Ivey said. “Our military men and women put it all on the line to ensure our freedoms, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Alabama will always stand behind our veterans.”