As the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers prepare to square off in the Iron Bowl Saturday, and hundreds of thousands flock to Jordan-Hare Stadium, a very special group from both schools will be making the journey on foot, with the mission of raising awareness for veterans’ suicides.
Dubbed “Operation Iron Ruck,” this is a collaborative effort between the two schools’ student veteran groups – University of Alabama’s Campus Veterans Association and Auburn’s Student Veterans Association.
Each hiker will carry 17 pounds of donated materials in honor the 17 veterans that die by suicide each day.
The items in the backpacks as well as monetary donations raised will go towards Mission 22, Three Hots and a Cot and the Tuskegee Veterans Community Living Center.
“The heavy stress of the hike is symbolic of the challenges that veterans with thoughts of suicide face every day,” said Slade Salmon, President of UA’s Campus Veterans Association. “The camaraderie that is built between the veterans of both universities during this event has led to lifelong friendships and a greater network of veterans helping veterans.”
The cross-state hike started in Tuscaloosa Wednesday and will end in Auburn just ahead of kickoff Saturday. Each student veteran will hike approximately 50 miles and walk for 2 ½ hours before climbing into a support vehicle for about five hours of rest before their next hike.
Salmon has made the trek himself for the past three years and has coordinated the last two for UA student veterans.
The 17 veterans a day who commit suicide is down by five from previous years, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. However, Salmon said that this isn’t a reason to stop.
He explained that a large contributor to veteran suicide is isolation, and making this hike is a way to spark motivation in people to reach out to veterans and ensure they don’t feel alone.
“Part of our message this year is that while we are very happy that the number has dropped by five veterans per day, there is still a lot of work to do,” Salmon said. “Operation Iron Ruck is very important for me because I use it as a memorial to those veterans who are no longer with us because of suicide, and also a time to reach out to others I served with but haven’t been in contact with for a while… That small gesture of showing care for someone could be the thing that prevents another death.”