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Gone virtual, Ruck Up 2020 raises awareness of veteran suicide

Gone virtual, Ruck Up 2020 raises awareness of veteran suicide

Marla Rivera of Round Lake Beach walks with her son, Dakota Mendez, 8, and fiancÚ, Juan Mendez, a Marine veteran who suffers from PTSD, on a path close to their home as they prepare for the virtual Lake County Ruck March 22 Day Challenge, which began Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 22. Proceeds from the 22K walk will benefit the Lake County Veterans & Family Services Foundation in Grayslake.
Marla Rivera of Round Lake Beach walks with her son, Dakota Mendez, 8, and fiancÚ, Juan Mendez, a Marine veteran who suffers from PTSD, on a path close to their home as they prepare for the virtual Lake County Ruck March 22 Day Challenge, which began Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 22. Proceeds from the 22K walk will benefit the Lake County Veterans & Family Services Foundation in Grayslake.

The fourth annual Lake County Ruck March won’t look like it has in the past, but efforts to honor veterans lost to suicide remain strong.

Instead of gathering on one day to walk together, participants will cover 22 kilometers each in a span of 22 days as part of the new virtual event, Ruck Up 2020, hosted by Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation. Along with the distance and time frame, the number 22 represents the number of vets who take their lives each day.

When Marla Rivera thinks about that number, she thinks about her fiancÚ, Juan Mendez, a combat veteran who spent 14 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I know that Juan has dealt with those demons that some of our veterans have dealt with, and I know there was a time this could have been him,” she said.

That’s why she, Mendez and their 8-year-old son, Dakota, will walk for at least 22 kilometers over the next few days. The family likely will cover a few miles a day on a trail near their Round Lake Beach home or perhaps walk with friends at a forest preserve. Either way, Rivera said, they’ll reach 22 kilometers.

“For us, this is huge,” she said. “We’re fortunate [Juan] was able to move forward in a positive direction and change his life, but we know that’s not the case for everybody. For us, it’s just to remember some of his Marine buddies he’s lost and raise awareness that so many veterans commit suicide daily.”

Ruck Up 2020 officially began Sept. 1 and ends Sept. 22, with participants encouraged to register through a link available at www.lcvetsfoundation.org. Individual registration costs $44.

Participants can register at any time as individuals or teams and march, walk, run, ride or even crawl, said Robert Gorman, event spokesman and a peer support specialist for the Grayslake-based Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation.

“It’s really up to them if they want to do it all at once or if they want to spread it out over 22 days,” Gorman said. “We just want them to be part of it, to draw attention to the issue and to get the message out.”

Ruck is short for rucksack, which refers to the backpacks service members sometimes wear. In years past, participants have worn rucksacks while walking the entire 22 kilometers in one day.

Having done this last year, veteran Chris DeLage of Round Lake Beach intends to repeat the effort this year, despite the event’s format change. He and a few fellow veterans plan to walk 22 kilometers Sept. 12 at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake, one of Lake County’s largest forest preserves.

Walking together provides more motivation, said DeLage, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1996 through 2004.

“We decided that it’s designed to be a one-and-done march. You march the whole thing at once. It’s supposed to be difficult to show we’re sacrificing our time and effort to show we’re standing with our brothers and sisters struggling,” he said.

He’s lost fellow veterans both during active duty and because of suicide.

“Anything we can do to raise the awareness and get attention to it, as wide a net as we can cast, I’m here to support that,” he said.

“Men and women who serve our country and go out and put themselves in harm’s way a lot of times come home with a lot of unresolved issues. … It sometimes can be hard to integrate with the ‘normal life,’ ” he said. “They’re expected to just jump back in with civilian life, and sometimes it’s very difficult and overlooked and sometimes looked at as a weakness. A lot of veterans have a hard time asking for help until it’s too late.”

All of the money raised through Ruck Up 2020 goes to support the foundation, which helps veterans in Lake, McHenry and southern Kenosha counties struggling emotionally, financially and/or vocationally.

Veteran peer specialists provide “help from those who’ve been there” through free support services, counseling and program resources.

Illinois has the third-highest population of veterans in the country, and they need support now more than ever, said Gorman, who lives in Barrington.

“The isolation, risk and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a greater need for the counseling, companionship and support services for Lake County veterans and families,” he said. “We’re very aware that the level of veteran suicides could actually be going up because of all this pressure and isolation. … We’re trying to help veterans to ask for help before they get to the point of losing hope and thinking of harming themselves.”

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