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Ruck supporting veterans set for Nov. 13

By Heather Graves
Staff Writer

GREEN BAY – According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States.

For 4th H.O.O.A.H. (Helping Out Our American Heroes), a nonprofit military support organization, until that number is at zero, it’s too much.

“We, as a nation, spend millions of dollars every year to train these individuals to become warriors,” Wisconsin Chapter President Tammy Hardwick said. “A lot of the time when they return, there is a gap in communication, a gap in programs, a gap in services, from what they’ve experienced when deployed. We know there are gaps in the system.”

Hardwick said 4th H.O.O.A.H. sees itself as the spackle.

“We try to fill those gaps,” she said. “We want them to know we are not a one and done… 4th H.O.O.A.H. is here for the long run. We are building those relationships so they know they have a small place to land.”

For the ninth year, 4th H.O.O.A.H. will hosts its annual 20-Mile (or 2.0-Mile) Veteran Suicide Awareness Ruck, Saturday, Nov. 13.

Hundreds will lace up their boots, strap on their packs and march 20 miles to show their support for those suffering with PTSD, or in memory of veterans who died by suicide.

“We know this is a conversation that needs to be had,” Hardwick said. “We need to normalize mental health issues – that it’s OK not to be OK. So having these events and gathering the community and support for these individuals is just really important.”

Hardwick said it’s not a requirement, but participants can carry a rucksack or backpack that weighs 20 pounds in remembrance of the 20 veterans.

She said each year the event draws around 1,000 veterans, active duty service members and civilians.

Organizers hope for a similar turnout this year.

Both the 20-mile and the 2.0-mile rucks start at the KI Convention Center.

Ruckers will travel down the Fox River Trail with the 2.0-mile ruckers turning around at Mason Street, and the 20-mile ruckers turning around at Old Martin Road.

Hardwick said organizers have a goal of $100,000, which is the group’s annual budget.

She said 100% of funds raised go into programs designed to help local veterans with physical, mental, emotional and financial needs.

William Kocken, 4th H.O.O.A.H. vice president and Wisconsin chapter founder, said the ruck is a win-win.

“The ruck is our biggest awareness-raiser and fundraiser,” he said. “It funds the majority of our programs and also raises so much awareness to veteran suicide. It shows veterans that they don’t stand alone.”

Boot Tribute Campaign

During the ruck, and at other 4th H.O.O.A.H. events throughout the year, military-style boots accompanied by pictures and stories of veterans who died by suicide are displayed as part of the Boot Tribute Campaign in an effort to put a face to the problem.

“The boot campaign really encompasses the charity as a whole,” Hardwick said. “We want to put a face to these individuals who complete suicide. You hear the number, when we started it was 22, went down to 20, so it’s making that progress, but it’s hard when you hear that number to really equate that with a face. So, the boot tribute that we do just really drives that home. You see these individuals with the boots. You see the write up from their family. You see their rank. You see their branch, and it really personalizes it.

She said the campaign encompasses the reason behind what 4th H.O.O.A.H. does.

“We use those tributes that are given so bravely by the families, we use those at all of our events to really encompass,” she said. “Yes, we have these fun outings, we have these gatherings, but this is really the reason why, this is why and this is why we’re there for them.”

Hardwick said the boot tribute is a year-round campaign, and local businesses and organizations can also host a boot to continue the awareness effort.

“Last year, more than 100 boots went out to local businesses,” she said. “That is really awesome because it really spread the awareness for the event, for the charity and for these individuals. We’ve had (boots) everywhere from pizza chains to automotive dealerships, and everything in between.”

Hardwick said community support since the organization started in 2013 has been phenomenal.

“In my mind, everybody should support the veterans and our local military,” she said. “Some of the other state chapters don’t get the buy-in from the community, they don’t get that support,” she said. “But, here in Wisconsin, we are inundated and reached out to on a regular basis from all different types of groups and companies that want to support and agree with our mission. They want a way to help, so we get consistent community support, which is absolutely awesome.”

Wisconsin chapter history

Founded in 2013, 4th H.O.O.A.H. Wisconsin, a chapter of H.O.O.A.H. Inc., supports active duty, returning veterans and their family members. 

4th H.O.O.A.H. believes every veteran has earned and deserves support, and never turns a service member, active or retired, away.

Hardwick said the 2013 ruck was the catalyst for the Wisconsin chapter.

“Our founding members – Kocken and Nick Gries – were aware of H.O.O.A.H., our national chapter in Florida and they liked the mission,” she said. “There was nobody else having the conversation in Wisconsin at that time. They knew the conversation needed to be had.”

She said the 2013 ruck was thrown together in just 10 days, and raised $10,000.

With its goal to have a local chapter in all 50 states, the national organization suggested the money be used to launch the Wisconsin chapter.

“It just grew exponentially from there,” Hardwick said. “The first six years of the ruck, the profit for each ruck pretty much doubled. Attendance had doubled. Obviously, with 2020 we did more of a virtual event, but it was still  very successful monetarily and in exposure and coverage throughout the United States. They knew the conversation needed to be had.”

Kocken said he and Gries created the Wisconsin chapter because of need.

“We could not find an organization that was supporting veterans in the way we felt they needed to be supported,” Kocken said. “With H.O.O.A.H. being an 100% volunteer organization, we were able to put 100% of the funds back to helping veterans in the way we best saw fit. This, to us, was to get veterans out doing things again and taking on life head first.”

Hardwick said volunteering with 4th H.O.O.A.H. since 2015 has been her way of giving back.

“I have a strong military background in my family,” she said. “I am the only one of my seven other siblings that have not directly served or are married to someone who served. So, this was really my way of giving back.”

Kocken said the ability to help veterans is everything.

“I get to see veterans that have been struggling (to) fight through those struggles and become stronger because of it,” he said. “This organization provides a variety of programs to help veterans reconnect with each other and with activities they wouldn’t have tried because of cost or other barriers.”

More information on 4th H.O.O.A.H., the ruck or its other events, can be found online at hooahwi.org.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

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