Soldier battling cancer 'carries on' for the fallen
April 8, 2014
NATICK, Mass. (April 4, 2014) -- It has become a familiar, symbolic sight -- Capt. Justin Fitch walking along local roads, carrying his rucksack.
Fitch, the Headquarters Research Development Detachment commander at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, does this to raise awareness -- and money -- for Soldiers, veterans and their families suffering from post-traumatic stress, or PTS, and suicidal thoughts.
"We're raising awareness, and that's very important," Fitch said. "Part of fixing a problem is knowing that a problem exists. (Suicide is) a very taboo topic with a lot of stigma. It's just not talked about."
Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day, which adds up to more than 8,000 a year, or, as Fitch pointed out, more than have died in the entire Global War on Terrorism since 2001.
"Twenty-two a day?" Fitch said. "We want to make that number zero. One veteran's suicide is too many."
Toward that end, Fitch and his Team Minuteman alone have raised more than $75,000 since November through "Carry the Fallen," a series of 12-hour team ruck marches. There are 50 such teams nationally, according to Fitch.
Funds from those events go to the "Active Heroes" organization, which is developing a $5 million, 144-acre military family retreat in Shepherdsville, Ky.
"This event is growing," Fitch said. "We definitely raised awareness on a large scale. This cause has gone viral."
Fitch has remained steadfast in his support of the cause despite carrying his own heavy burden: The 31-year-old Hayward, Wis., native has Stage IV colon cancer, and he has become the public face of this effort.
"I absolutely don't mind putting myself out there as long as it strengthens this cause," said Fitch, quick to add that, "It's about so many more people than me."
Fitch pointed to the Carry the Fallen event March 29, along the Boston Marathon course, in which dozens of participants rucked. Among them was Jason Wheeler, a veteran who lost the use of both legs, is partially blind, and suffers from post-traumatic stress, known as PTS, and a traumatic brain injury. Despite recent foot surgery, Wheeler used his wheelchair to carry his ruck along the course.
"It's just inspirational," Fitch said. "There's a reason why this event means so much to him."
Then there was Denise Florio, a disabled veteran with PTS who is also coping with thyroid cancer. Duncan McNaughton, a teenage son of a retired Army Ranger, completed both the November and March events that took place on the marathon course.
Natick employees Darren Bean, Raul Lopez and Sarah Welch supported the event. Bean reached into his own pocket to rent a recreational vehicle so that participants would have a mobile latrine and water source. Welch, a former Army medic, provided medical support out of the RV. Lopez helped them and did some rucking for Fitch when the chronic pain from his cancer flared up.
"There's so many inspiring people, so many inspiring stories, so many heroes, in my mind, out there," Fitch said. "That alone just makes it a great event.
"We had a lot of Gold Star Families show there, too. It was such a big deal to these families that people were standing up to keep this from happening to other people."
Five miles into the ruck march, pain forced Fitch into the RV. He continued to jump out onto the course for a mile or two at a time to walk with others. He latched onto a group of five, covered the last four miles and crossed the finish line.
"I was extremely happy with the whole event, overall," said Fitch, adding that participation had more than doubled from November's ruck march.
Fitch pointed out that participants included some who had experienced PTS and suicidal thoughts firsthand.
"They find great purpose in (the event)," said Fitch, "because they're tied to it and they've lost friends, brothers and sisters in arms, even family members, because of suicide that's service connected. Just the event itself, participating in it, has (helped) people."
Fitch counts himself among them, because there was a time in his own life when thoughts of suicide nearly consumed him.
"It's OK to seek help," Fitch said. "You can get help. Look at me. I'm a captain, I'm about to be a major, and I sought help."
The next Boston ruck march will be held May 31, on the marathon course. Fitch said he is already looking forward to it, but he is also realistic.
"I want to keep rucking," Fitch said. "I want to be on the ground with everyone else rucking, defying my condition, but I also may need to take a step back."
The cause is just too important for him not to be involved, either as a participant or supporting others, however.
"If all we do is just save one life, one that wouldn't have been saved otherwise," said Fitch, "I say that's mission success."