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Veterans hike raises awareness, funds for mental health

Daily Hampshire Gazette - 8/20/2017

For the Gazette

ORANGE — Nine military veterans trekked through Franklin County in the wee hours of Friday morning on a mission. By 10 a.m., they’d reached the Orange Armory community center, nearly 24 hours into a non-stop, 200-mile cross-state hike raising awareness about military veterans’ mental health.

“We just got on our third marathon, we’ve got 122 miles to go,” said Darren Bean, a 25-year Army veteran and founder of the nonprofit Warrior Thunder Foundation, sponsor of Vet Ruck New England.

The trek stepped off Thursday around noon from Bates Memorial State Park in Hancock. Bean said they expect to finish Sunday afternoon in Plymouth at the Atlantic Ocean. Walkers rotated shifts; walking and then resting in two RVs driving behind.

Weather was clear Thursday night, “we made good time,” Bean said. But Friday morning brought driving rain, slowing the pace and lowering moral. Welcome encouragement waited at the Armory, where Orange Selectman Jim Cornwell helped organize a rest stop.

Trekkers sat on the floor, peeling off wet socks and drinking Gatorade. Well-wishers shook hands and offered words of encouragement. Checks were given to Warrior Thunder Foundation. A mile up the road at the town’s center, the Fire Department hung a large American flag from a ladder truck. And rain didn’t deter local supporters from crowding East Main Street.

“I appreciate what they’re doing. There are people out there struggling; afraid to reach out for help,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Joe Young, an Orange resident. Young helped put the rest stop together along with his wife, Andrea Heckman-Young.

Vet Ruck New England’s purpose is to raise awareness about high veteran suicide rates and to raise money for the cause.

“Twenty vets a day take their own life,” Bean said, citing a recent national Veterans Affairs study — down from 22 per day documented a few years ago. “Vets are about 5 to 6 percent of the population. But the suicide rate is huge.”

Some of the marchers have been personally affected by suicide. Bean was inspired to start Warrior Thunder Foundation in 2010 after a close military friend took his own life. Army 1st Lt. Kristen Heavens, one of the nine trekkers, has grieved close friends and family lost to suicide a few times.

“My grandfather, a Navy vet, took his life before I was born. I never met him, but I see the effects,” Heavens said. She chose to march to prevent others from going through the same.

“It’s a stigma we need to break down. Mental health needs to be in the spotlight. We need to improve,” she said.

Having marched from the New York state line down Route 116 in Ashfield, Old Main Street in Deerfield, and Montague City Road in Turners Falls, the caravan’s journey continued down Route 2 through Athol.

“It’s not just about the 200 miles. It’s about the awareness we raise,” Bean added.

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