Marine veteran from Round Lake Beach works to raise awareness of military suicides
More than 140 people marched through Lake County earlier this month to raise awareness of suicides by military veterans and active-duty personnel.
The procession wasn't a protest, though. Rather, it was the third Ruck March of Lake County, a charitable and promotional event put together by the Lake County Veterans and Family Services Foundation.
Marine Corps veteran Juan Mendez is among the march's organizers. A 38-year-old Round Lake Beach resident, he's the coordinator of programs and operations for the foundation, a nonprofit group that connects veterans with each other and provides confidential assistance to them and their families.
Mendez noted that the number of marchers and volunteers have increased since the event launched in 2017.
"The continued increase of participation ... demonstrates that our surrounding communities care about reducing veteran suicides," Mendez said.
Suicide is a worsening problem in the military, and helping suicidal veterans has become a priority for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department.
According to military.com, 321 active-duty troops killed themselves in 2018, the highest number since the services began tracking data in 2001.
About 67 percent of all veteran deaths by suicide are the result of firearms, and rates of suicide are highest among younger veterans, a Veterans Affairs report indicates.
The ruck march coincides with Suicide Prevention Month. This year, the 22-kilometer course started and ended at a Lake Villa cafe, with a Grayslake train station being the turnaround point.
The distance is symbolic of the 22 veterans who, on average, killed themselves each day as of a 2013 Veterans Affairs report. That figure has since dropped to 20.
Of the 144 people at the starting line for this year's event, 122 completed the course. Many of the marchers wore military-style ruck sacks or backpacks to symbolize the emotional burdens soldiers and veterans often endure.
Knowing people care about veterans and their struggles encouraged Mendez to overcome his own psychological challenges, he said.
"I felt no one, including my family, understood my troubles and my experiences," Mendez said. "However ... people care (and) support is available."
Mendez said he's encountered "some absolutely extraordinary people" who want to help veterans and their families.
"It is overwhelming, the amount of support available to us," he said.
In addition to bringing attention to the problem of military suicides, the march raised more than $64,000 for the foundation. To get help from the foundation, call (847) 986-4622. You can also visit the foundation's drop-in center at 100 S. Atkinson Road, Grayslake.
• Do you know of veterans who help other veterans or do good things for their community? Share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.