By LeAnn R. Ralph
GLENWOOD CITY — Twenty-two miles is a long way to march.
On Saturday, May 16 — Armed Forces Day — a group of area veterans marched 22 miles, 11 miles out and 11 miles back, from the St. Croix County Fairgrounds to bring awareness to the number of American veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and who subsequently commit suicide.
The number 22 is significant, said event organizers, because every day in the United States, 22 veterans kill themselves.
The number of 22 per day comes from a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs several years ago.
The event was organized by the Olson-Kaufman AMVETS Post 654 from Eau Claire.
“It’s something that needs to be talked about, and there needs to be more awareness and more visibility. You didn’t have to (march on Saturday). It was completely voluntary. And it says a lot about who you are and what you want to accomplish,” said Brian Vaver, an Iraq war veteran and an AMVETS member who helped organize the event.
The veterans who marched 22 miles left the St. Croix County Fairgrounds at 7 a.m. and returned at around 4:45 p.m.
In the morning at 11:11 a.m., 1,059 names were read off of soldiers killed in World War I, World War II and Iraq from the First Battalion, 128th Infantry.
Scott Bolstad, Senator Ron Johnson’s Wisconsin outreach director, also attended the event.
“The fact that we have these suicides. We’ve got to do better. As a society and as veterans, we’ve got to help each other out. These (types of events) will help bring an awareness and may help prevent some of them,” said Bolstad, a 26-year veteran of the United States Army who served his last four years with the ROTC program at UW-Stout.
In addition to bringing awareness to PTSD and the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day, the event was a way to dedicate the 128th Infantry Memorial Highway, formerly known as state Highway 128.
State legislators who were invited were unable to attend because of the Republican convention in LaCrosse on Saturday.
The 128th Infantry Memorial Highway “runs through the heart of the battalion. We have units in River Falls, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Onalaska and Abbotsford. This highway, Highway 128, runs right through the battalion. So AMVETS went down to Madison and lobbied and got the state to recognize the highway and change the law,” said Mike Hanke, another of the event’s organizers.
Hanke, a retired sergeant first class from Chippewa Falls, enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Brigade in 1983, served four years before transferring to active duty from 1987-1990, and rejoined the Wisconsin National Guard ten years later and deployed to Iraq twice with the First Battalion, 128th Infantry.
Shortly after returning from his second deployment, Hanke was driving on I-94, past the state Highway 128 exit and struck upon the idea that Highway 128 should be renamed to honor the 128th Infantry.
Governor Scott Walker signed the legislation designating Highway 128 as the 128th Infantry Memorial Highway in 2013.
Former state Senator Dave Zien also attended the event at the St. Croix County Fairgrounds.
Changing state statutes to change the name of a highway is not an easy thing to do in Wisconsin, Zien said.
The 128th Infantry Memorial Highway is the fourth highway in the state to honor military service, he said.
“You ought to feel so gratified … this is heritage,” Zien said.
“You are inspiring. Others should emulate you. I understand you’ve got some other events planned to help promote and cherish this highway. You are leading by example,” he said.
Future plans for the site where the 128th Infantry Memorial Highway sign is located at the St. Croix County Fairgrounds include installing flags, Hanke said.
“The expense is not the flags or the poles, it’s running power to light (the flag). Someday, within five years, the plan is to have those 1,059 names killed in combat from the battalion on a plaque here. It’s a work in progress. We’re a volunteer organization and we go out and knock on doors and collect pennies and create dollars,” he said.
Jeremy Bangel, who led the 22 mile march, said there is a Facebook page for veterans who need someone to talk to called “Battle in Distress.”
“There’s someone there 24/7,” he said.
According to the Facebook page’s mission statement, “Battle In Distress shall work to be the missing link that connects Veterans and currently serving members of the United States Armed Forces who are in or at risk for being in mental, emotional, financial, or psychological distress to the individuals, organizations, government entities, or other entities that provide services or assistance that can ameliorate the underlying problems that lead them to a state of distress. Battle In Distress will serve as a vehicle for bringing about a national, cultural and societal change in the manner in which the matters of Stress, Resilience, Connection, PTSD, Suicide and other related issues affecting Service Members and Veterans are viewed, discussed, and addressed with regards to the best practices for caring for those that have served or are currently serving.”
AMVETS is planning another event for the 128th Infantry Memorial Highway in October.
The Eau Claire-based First Battalion, 128th Infantry served in 2004 and 2005 in Iraq, and the Madison-based Second Battalion, 128th Infantry deployed to Kuwait in 2005 and 2006. The First Battalion participated in a second deployment to Iraq in 2009 and 2010, when the battalion earned a Meritorious Unit Citation.