One year ago, student veterans from Auburn University and the University of Alabama used their Thanksgiving break to lace up their boots, throw on their rucksacks weighing 22 pounds, and march 151 miles from the “Plains” of Auburn to the “Druid City” of Tuscaloosa to raise awareness for veteran suicide that plagues our armed forces community every day.
This year, student vets from both universities put on the same 22-pound rucksacks — symbolizing the average number of daily veteran suicides — put aside their differences, and repeated the same 151-mile march, known as Operation Iron Ruck; this time ending in Auburn just in time for the Iron Bowl.
“Operation Iron Ruck is more than just a march of camaraderie between the CVA (Campus Veterans Association) of UA and ASVA (Auburn Student Veterans Association),” ASVA president Benjamin Barrontine said. “It’s an opportunity to bring awareness and shed light on veteran suicide in Alabama and across our nation.”
The 22 pounds are donated goods consisting of toiletries, canned goods, socks, gloves and other needs the student vets will donate to the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City; Three Hots and a Cot, an organization assisting homeless veterans; and Mission 22, an organization seeking to prevent veteran suicide.
“Thanksgiving, by definition, is a time to give thanks to those of whom you care for; so, it’s a perfect opportunity for the student veterans from both schools, to give thanks to the veterans around the state and show our support,” Barrontine said.
Matt Jones, ASVA vice president and a returner from last year’s march, said, “We pride ourselves in doing the most for others, especially in our veteran community. We have evolved this cause into being a major impact to our state in terms of raising awareness for and fighting against the mental health crisis that takes so many of our brothers and sisters. I’m proud to be a part of its beginnings and hope it’s a tradition that lasts as long as it takes to end veteran suicide.”
A year can make all the difference when it comes to putting the word out, and this past year, both universities have generously and enthusiastically supported the project.
“The University of Alabama news media has been great in promoting Operation Iron Ruck,” CVA of UA president Slade Salmon said. “I am most looking forward to the camaraderie and the friendships that are made during this event.”
“We would like to thank the American Legion for stepping up in a major way to support Operation Iron Ruck,” said Justin Schwab, Operation: Iron Ruck coordinator for the ASVA. “They have contributed more than we could have ever of dreamed because Alabama is the second largest contributor to that average number, and they, like us, want to see that number reach zero.
“We are doing this because we want every veteran out there to know that there are plenty of avenues for help, and plenty of us that care.”
Navy veteran Jonathan Housand, a student assistant in Auburn Athletics communications, is participating in Operation Iron Ruck. The march concluded Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where veterans delivered the game ball.
Editor’s note: Alexander City resident Maryshay Ray, a retired veteran and CACC graduate, also participated in the Iron Ruck.