Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Veteran suicide prevention group holds inaugural march

A walk across the bridge with good conversation is a little easier than 22km with a packed ruck.

A Juneau-based veteran suicide prevention group held its first event, a walk across the Douglas Bridge on Tuesday evening.

Walk with a Vet, organized by Together With Juneau Veterans, attracted dozens who walked through a drizzly afternoon, drivers beeped and slowed to wave as they passed.

“The big goal, what we really want to do, is spread awareness to the veteran community of the resources available for suicide prevention,” said Lyle Kessler, member of the steering committee. “There’s challenges that many veterans face, some unique to veterans, some not.”

The walk has been a year or so coming as the Department of Veterans Affair-funded organization has been getting off the airfield, said steering committee member Aaron Surma. Together With Juneau Veterans is one of more than a dozen similar groups operating in rural areas where the VA has limited resources, able to reach out to more veterans, Surma said.

[Local officials say health infrastructure remains strong]

“So it’s for rural communities,” Surma said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We qualify as a rural community, so, good for us.”

The VA contracted with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which helped TWJV with building its organizational framework, Surma said, providing advice for things like how often to meet, what kind of people to seek to include, and how to do a needs assessment. Now that TWJV has its feet underneath it, Surma said, it’ll start doing events and seeking to meet with people to further their goals of veteran suicide prevention.

Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

“This was the first actual public event. We want to keep doing general awareness things like this but we want to go deeper and get into actual conversations about mental health,” Surma said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We hope that events like this get people into our orbit.”

TWJV will now begin looking to work with professionals in the mental health field to help serve veterans in the community better, Kessler said, even as they continue the walks on a monthly basis.

“I get calls from veterans all the time,” Surma said, speaking of his experience in his other job with NAMI Juneau. “They want to talk with someone who preferably is a veteran, or has experience working with veterans.”

The shared experience of veterancy can help people with otherwise wildly different experiences connect, said Sean Smack, an Army National Guard recruiter who walked on Tuesday.

“It’s good to connect with other veterans. You never know who’s fighting the battle,” Smack said. “You don’t usually open up to randos about your service.”

In the past, many other groups aiming to raise awareness of veteran suicide rates have done 22-kilometer ruck marches, or marches carrying weight, but TWJV is starting off a little easier for the sake of accessibility. Those present all agreed the turnout was better than expected. Surma thanked V’s Cellar Door for providing snacks at the end of walk.

Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Juneau residents and veterans gathered on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 for Together with Juneau Veterans’ first Walk with a Vet event across the Douglas Bridge. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

“It had a great turnout,” Smack said. “I had a good time, got to share some stories.”

The marches will continue each week. Surma said TWJV is working to nail down a date or day of the month each month to hold it on, but has thus far only committed to monthly events as they increase their deeper-level outreach. More information can be found on the Together with Juneau Veterans Facebook page. Those interested in connecting with the work can email them at TWJV907@gmail.com.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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