The three-day march from Bryant-Denny Stadium to Jordan-Hare Stadium will begin on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 7 a.m. Operation Iron Ruck has the mission of bringing awareness to veteran suicide prevention. Participants will ruck 151 miles while carrying 22-pound rucksacks to signify the 22 veterans who take their lives every day.
Veterans put the rivalry aside during the week of the Iron Bowl and march 151 miles to advocate for veteran suicide prevention. Operation Iron Ruck is a time where veterans from The University of Alabama and Auburn University march together to bring awareness to a cause that has a heavy impact on those who serve in the military as a whole.
A veteran dies by suicide every 65 minutes in the United States. Most of the time, it is someone you would not expect who is having difficulties and the ones who hide it the best, Justin Schwab said. He said a lot of it is contributed to mental illness.
“I know for veterans, once you’re outside of your branch of service, you know you’re kind of on your own,” Schwab said. “So you don’t have that close-knit unit, so a lot of times they just don’t know where to turn when they don’t have that person to talk to, so that’s mainly what we are trying to do. We are just trying to raise awareness, trying to let everybody know there are plenty of places to go.”
Schwab, a junior majoring in building construction at Auburn University, is the director of outreach and philanthropy for the Auburn Student Veterans Association. He served in the Marine Corps for five years. Last year he participated in Operation Iron Ruck and is looking forward to rucking again this year.
“We stepped off that Wednesday morning, and I have never met any of those guys from Alabama, and I didn’t know anything about them,” Schwab said. “All I knew was that they were Alabama fans, it’s Iron Bowl week, I don’t like you, you know. Seventy-five hours later, we were at Bryant-Denny and every single one of them was one of my best friends.”
This year Operation Iron Ruck will begin on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 7 a.m. in front of the Walk of Champions at Bryant-Denny Stadium and will end at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Participants take their first step on their three-day journey at 7:30 a.m.
“Just because we have our different opinions on college football teams or different affiliations, we all have so much that’s so similar,” Schwab said. “This is something where we can come together and help each other and, you know, get through much like mental illness affecting veteran suicide.”
Last year during the ruck, Schwab said they thought they were behind but they were ahead, and where they thought they were ahead, they were behind. This year they have a plan and timeline set in place so they know exactly where they are and when they need to leave.
The group will break into three teams that will walk roughly 50 miles each. The first and last three miles everyone will be rucking together. After those first three miles are completed, Schwab said they will do what they call “stick marching.”
The first team will start off by rucking 7 miles, and when they approach the first stop, they will then support the second team before they rest. The second team will ruck the next 7 miles, and after they approach the second stop, the third team will ruck. The second team will support the third team while they ruck the next 7 miles; then, they will rest. This cycle continues to rotate until they are together again to complete the last 3 miles altogether. Schwab said it is a ruck, support, rest system.
During this, the marchers will carry a 22-pound rucksack that will signify the average 22 veterans who take their own lives each day, Schwab said. The sack is made up of donated items such as clothes, toiletries, canned goods and living items they have raised through their drive for Mission 22, Three Hots and a Cot, and the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home.
Slade Salmon, a junior majoring in operations management at The University of Alabama, participated in Operation Iron Ruck last year. Salmon is the president of the Campus Veteran Association (CVA). He connected with Schwab, and they still keep in contact today.
“Obviously the Alabama, Auburn rivalry is the biggest rivalry in all of college football, and I think it definitely says something that our two universities can put aside our differences, especially during Iron Bowl week, and come together for a greater cause than just football,” Salmon said.
Beyond connecting with others during this event, Salmon strives to bring awareness to veteran suicide and to let fellow veterans know that it is OK to ask for help.
“If you see a veteran who, you know, their attitudes have changed and you know you see them going down, you know, in a rough part in their life or going down the wrong track, just reach out to them,” Salmon said.
Evan Prosise, a senior majoring in business, is the vice president of the CVA. He did not ruck last year but is ready to be a part of the movement this year.
“Every veteran kind of has to go through, unfortunately, a moment when they do [see] that somebody is affected by suicide – either, you know, commits it, or they’re thinking about it, or they attempted it,” Prosise said. “Every veteran you talk to, most of the time, they’ll have, unfortunately, a moment in their career where something will go wrong.”
There is an unfortunate stigma of mental health in the military, according to Prosise. The fear of being kicked out of the service when seeking help is there. There are trained professionals available to help those who serve, and Prosise encourages those who need help to seek it because it will benefit them and get them out of that dark spot in their life.
“There are people out there who can help,” Prosis said. “Don’t feel like you have to go through this alone. Veterans are always more than willing to help one another out.”
Prosise is looking forward to connecting with other veterans during the ruck.
“Every veteran has their own story about what they went through,” Prosise said.
To prepare, Prosise has been training, because during his time in the Air Force, he did not ruck as much as the other branches. He said he wanted to prepare as much as he possibly could to be ready.
“I’ve got weights that I put in my bag and throughout the day, even during class,” Prosise said. “I’ll try and carry as much as I can in my bag to just kind of get ready for it.”
To support Operation Iron Ruck, the CVA is accepting donations by checks payable to Campus Veterans Association or through Venmo to @UACVA1.
Checks can be mailed to:
Campus Veterans Association 301 7th Ave. Suite 3000 Tuscaloosa, Al 35401
Items to donate (can drop off at CVA)