By Brandon Moseley

Operation Iron Ruck is underway. Operation Iron Ruck is an effort by members of the Auburn Student Veterans Association (ASVA) and the University of Alabama’s Campus Veterans Association (ACVA) to raise awareness of suicide rates among veterans.

The students march from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, to Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. The students embarked on the 151-mile march Wednesday, and the march will be completed on Iron Bowl Saturday.

Gov. Kay Ivey offered her support ahead of the march.

“It is imperative that, as a nation, we never forget to offer our support to the brave men and women who have served our country in the military,” Ivey said. “We must put a greater focus on preventing veteran suicide and on supporting these brave men and women after they return home, which is why I am so proud of the efforts of our student veterans embarking on Operation Iron Ruck. Our military men and women put it all on the line to ensure our freedoms, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Alabama will always stand behind our veterans.”

The group of student veterans are led by Slade Salmon of The University of Alabama and Auburn University’s Clayton Buchanan. The 151-mile ruck march from Tuscaloosa to Auburn takes four days.

The rucksacks contain donated items that the students will deliver to Mission 22, Tuskegee Veteran’s Assisted Living Centers and Three Hots and a Cot. The items include hygiene products and an assortment of food items.

“Many veterans, myself included, personally know another veteran or service member who have succumbed to suicide,” said Buchanan. “On average, 17 veterans commit suicide daily. Through Operation Iron Ruck and the collaboration of the student veterans of Auburn and Alabama, it truly shows that the veteran community is strong and committed to take care of our brothers and sisters until 17 becomes zero.”

The veterans participating from Auburn University have been preparing for the event by training with the School of Kinesiology’s Warrior Research Center.

“We have worked with the Student Veterans Association for 12 weeks in preparation for Operation Iron Ruck as their performance optimization team,” said doctoral student Monaye Merritt. “We resistance train twice a week, held yoga once a week and have held four workshops.”

Merritt, along with doctoral students Philip Agostinelli and Morgan Smith, developed the training programs to ensure the student veterans would be prepared for Operation Iron Ruck.

“Workshops have covered a range of components: wellness, nutrition, hydration, sleep, etc., longevity—participating in movement for leisure—and mindset,” Merritt said. “We have built a great relationship with the Student Veterans Association, not just through training, but also tailgating together and joining each other during football games. We intend to continue to make the performance optimization program available to them in the spring.”

In addition to helping the veterans train, Merritt, Agostinelli and Smith will be participating in the last portion of the ruck.

“Not only do we implement training to help them perform and succeed, but we want to be there with them supporting them along the way,” Smith said.

“Operation Iron Ruck is more than just a bunch of vets walking down the road for three days,” Salmon said. “OIR represents two distinct groups of people who are able to put aside their differences, come together, and participate in an event for a cause that is greater than all of us.”

Fifty student veterans will be participating. Operation Iron Ruck has been held annually since 2018 and has grown each year.

The weight the veterans will be carrying is as symbolic as the march itself.

“The weight that we carry in our packs is made up of items that we will be donating to the Tuskegee Homeless Veterans Shelter,” Andy Cole, media director for ASVA. said. “This consists of things like toiletries, towels, socks and other necessities that can make their lives a little easier. Any monetary donations received will go to Mission 22 and Three Hots and a Cot, both of which are organizations that help veterans by means of donations. On the ruck, we will be carrying the game ball, along with 22 sets of dog tags in remembrance of the ones that we have lost."

OIR has partnered with Alabama's Challenge, an official initiative of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It speaks volumes that the Alabama and Auburn student veterans' associations set aside their rivalry during the week of the Iron Bowl to work together in raising awareness about veteran suicide," said Kent Davis, who serves as the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs and Co-Chair of Alabama's Challenge. "This march establishes a connectedness and level of support that has a lasting impact within the veteran community. I'm proud of both universities and all participants for the work they are doing to help raise awareness for veteran suicide."

Approximately 400,000 veterans live in Alabama. They represent about 10% of the state’s population, but make up a disproportionate 18% of suicides in Alabama. If you or a loved one are battling depression or having thoughts of suicide, you are encouraged to call The Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 to speak to trained counselors and access immediately available resources.

To follow the progress of Operation Iron Ruck, go to its Facebook page.

(Original reporting by Auburn University’s Miranda Nobles contributed to this report).