November 11, 2019

Veteran organizing march to raise suicide awareness - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Veteran organizing march to raise suicide awareness

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Posted: Monday, November 4, 2019 4:25 pm

Semper Fi.

Ex-Marine Jacob Schaefers exudes life with his funny stories and the way his eyes shine with love when he and his wife share the story of meeting at the Stadium Sports Bar and Grill. He thought he was charming. She thought he was annoying, but still gave him her phone number -- or at least part of it. He had to track her down through Facebook.

However, Schaefers knows some veterans do not choose life as he does. That knowledge, and the bond shared by those who serve together prompted him to take action in 2017 when one of the men with whom he served died.

"He ended up being found dead by some railroad tracks. No one really knew what happened," Schaefers said.

He was reminded of a buddy from boot camp.

"He called me up and wanted to hang out one night and I was busy," Schaefers said. The young man committed suicide.

"It was a crappy thing. I didn't really understand it," he continued.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 17 veterans take their lives each day. However, the Military Times reported last month that number is lower than previously reported -- 22 veterans per day -- because active-duty, National Guardsmen and reservists have been removed from the larger number.

While suicide rates have been increasing nationally, veterans are still 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who have never served and that risk increases to 2.2 times more likely among female veterans. Schaefers wants to raise awareness of that number.

"All the suicide prevention programs are concentrated in the veteran community, but it doesn't get out," he said.

In 2017, he donned his flak jacket and a backpack weighing 22 pounds -- including water and Snickers bars -- to hike 22 miles to honor those veterans. He walked to the Broadwater Bar in rural Wentworth, had a couple beers and walked back.

He admits now he probably looked a little suspicious. On his way back into Madison, he was shadowed by a Lake County deputy in a patrol vehicle for a while and was finally stopped. The deputy wanted to know what he was carrying and what his plans were.

The deputy was eventually satisfied that Schaefers did not pose a threat and even offered him a ride to the Stadium. Schaefers said that even though his feet hurt, he declined.

The hike wasn't the first awareness activity he's been engaged in. When he was tagged on a Facebook, he did 22 pushups for 22 days, tagging others to participate.

Last year, he repeated his walk to the Broadwater, taking friends and family with him. Having learned his lesson the previous year, the walkers wore clearly-identified T-shirts and were accompanied by a van with flashers.

This year, Schaefers is extending an invitation for community members to join him. At 10 a.m. on Saturday, those who wish to help raise awareness are invited to walk laps with him on the Dakota State University track.

Schaefers is planning to walk 22 laps but knows other walkers may choose to walk fewer laps. He emphasizes that raising awareness is his primary goal.

"I served in the Marines from 2008 to 2013 and have personally lost a good friend from this," he says in promotional materials. "Military members ages 20-24 have the highest rate of suicide in the nation and it is something that needs more attention, so we can give them the help they need."

Schaefers admits that he really doesn't know why veterans have such a high suicide rate, but he does know that those who have not served may not understand a veteran's experience. Too, those who have not served may not ask the right question.

"No one is going to ask, `How are you coping'?" he observed.

He admits that he is fortunate. He has siblings in the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, S.D. Army National Guard and S.D. Air National Guard. They understand one another's experience.

As a data switching technician working on communications, his experience as a Marine was atypical.

"It was a cool thing to get into," he said, and launched into a story about being one of three enlisted personnel going into Kuwait with a group of officers.

As highest ranking enlisted, he was responsible for the conduct of the others with him. Schaefers said he gave them strict instructions: "Don't make eye contact with anyone and don't say anything."

While the story is funny, especially when Schaefers tells it, the suicide rate among veterans is not. Because of this, in addition to raising awareness, he will be selling T-shirts and accepting donations for Mission 22, a nonprofit which combats suicide among veterans by partnering with other organizations to provide positive outlets and healing experiences.

In addition, after the march, the Stadium Sports Bar and Grill will donate $1 to Mission 22 for every double drink and tall beer purchased until 5 p.m. Schaefers said those who buy a beer are helping every bit as much as those who walk laps.

"I would rather this be a lighthearted event of people standing together," he said. "Maybe if they [veterans] know there are people out there who care, they would reach out for help."

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