Traditional veterans organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have long advocated for U.S. military veterans and their families. This month, two events seek to expand the network to veterans beyond traditional organizations.
From noon-4 p.m. Sunday at the American Legion Post 16 is the eighth annual Southern Kenai Peninsula Veterans Picnic. Sponsored by the VA Volunteer Services, the legion offers its space, but it’s open to all veterans and their families. An expansion from VA Volunteer Services annual fall picnics held on the central peninsula, this is the eighth year the picnic has been held on the lower peninsula so that veterans don’t have to make the long trip north. The emphasis is on fun and fellowship, but representatives from the VA, the American Legion and Kenai Peninsula College will be on hand to offer information about their programs.
Veterans also can sign up for the VA or for specific VA programs. Bring VA cards or DD-215 discharge papers.
On Aug. 22, as part of a national movement to raise concerns about veteran suicide, a new veterans group, Alaskan Warrior Class, holds a Veterans Suicide Awareness Ruck March starting at 9 a.m. at the Homer Spit Trailhead Parking Lot, Kachemak Drive and Homer Spit Road.
In military slang, a ruck is a rucksack, the heavy pack soldiers and Marines carry on long patrols that carries all their gear, said Kurt Leffler II, the organizer of the Alaskan Warrior Class. For the 8-mile from the head of the Spit to the Seafarers Memorial and back, marchers will carry 22-to-40 pound rucks. Using the slogan and Twitter hashtag “#Stop 22 on 22,” the date and size of pack refers to a statistic by the VA that between 22 and 40 veterans a day die from suicide. Leffler said the idea of the ruck march is to bring veterans and families together in a safe, fun and challenging activity.
“We are carrying our brothers and sisters forward to success,” he said.
Leffler, 29, has been in the U.S. Army since enlisting at 19, both active duty and now as a sergeant in the Alaska Army National Guard. A Filipino martial arts instructor at Homer Gym, Leffler started Alaskan Warrior Class first as a veterans fitness team that turned into a veterans service group. The group has done service projects like stacking firewood for an Anchor Point Vietnam veteran as well as fun events like a ruck march in June along East End Road.
Alaskan Warrior Class also seeks to build a bridge between veterans and the civilian community.
“There are some personalities that don’t match,” Leffler said of Homer. “What we’re trying to do is get beyond that left-right community and show we’re your neighbors. We love Homer for what it is.”
He also wants to bring in veterans that might not feel comfortable joining veteran associations.
“There are a lot of veterans who join a community and fall off the train,” Leffler said. “They don’t know there are other veterans in town, and yet 10 percent of Homer’s population is veterans. This is trying to bring the community together.”
The Stop22 movement is a national effort to raise awareness of veteran suicide. One project is for people to post photos on social media of the word “stop” and the number “22.” Leffler came up with the idea of a ruck march himself. It’s now been picked up by other Alaskan and Lower 48 groups, with ruck marches scheduled on Aug. 22 in other Alaska cities and nine Lower 48 states.
Personal experience with veteran suicide motivated Leffler to organize the march.
“I’m sick and tired of losing brothers and sisters,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of losing my friends. I’ve lost a few.”
While talking about suicide helps, Leffler said veterans also need to do something.
“Something safe, fun and challenging, channeling all that anger and depression into something positive and productive,” he said. “I want to be the change that needs to happen. I don’t want to rely on somebody.”