By Tazanyia Mouton, USAG-Natick Public AffairsNovember 6, 2013
NATICK, Mass. (Nov. 6, 2013) -- Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That's almost one veteran each hour.
Capt. Justin Fitch, the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment, or HRDD, commander at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, wants that number to be as close to zero as possible, because he understands what it's like to face great personal challenges.
Fitch grew up in the Midwest and decided to join ROTC while he was in college. For the first few years after his commission, Fitch was an infantry officer, and he deployed to Iraq with his platoon. After re-deploying, he transitioned into an adjutant position with a Special Forces group, and in February 2012, he took command of HRDD.
In May of that same year, after running an adventure race, Fitch said he didn't feel quite right.
"I felt ill for almost a year, and I ignored intense abdominal pain for about four months," said Fitch. "I came into work the next day and decided to go see a doctor."
Shortly after his visit to the doctor, Fitch was informed that he had a tumor, which caused his large intestine to rupture. It was then that Fitch was told that he had colon cancer.
On Oct. 18, Fitch finished his 23rd round of chemotherapy.
"I've got two more on this cycle, and then I get a small break before I start it up again," Fitch said. "But as of now, with stage four colon cancer, tumors have spread beyond the large intestines."
Fitch said he appreciates the support he has received from his Army counterparts through his treatment.
"I am fortunate that the command here at Natick has supported me and allowed me to still be in command," Fitch said, "which has been a big psychological boost for me to be able to still contribute to the Army."
Fitch went on to add that he is receiving world-class care at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Tufts University.
While Fitch is trying to maintain good command, control and discipline in his unit, in his free time he enjoys competition shooting. Fitch placed first in his division at the 2013 New England Regional Championship for the International Defensive Pistol Association. Fitch also said his wife and two dogs keep him sane.
Fitch said he has been pushing himself to physically rehabilitate after his numerous surgeries. He added that working on Soldier basics such as push-ups, sit-ups and the run have proven to be challenges.
"One thing that I have been able to rely on through rehabilitation, in exercise therapy, almost like a meditative state, is ruck marching," Fitch said. "It's not requiring my core to twist in weird ways, and it's something that I've always been good at."
Fitch said that he has been trying to ruck to work at least twice a month. On a recent day, Fitch was recovering from a nine-and-a-half mile ruck, which he completed in a little more than three hours, with 80 pounds of weight strapped to his back.
"The last time I came in was 72 pounds; I think 65 (pounds) was the time before that. Just about a week and half ago, I took 85 pounds on a five-mile ruck around my house to try to build up that kind of strength and endurance," Fitch said. "I'm also being careful not to wear myself into the ground because I have to balance recovery from chemotherapy, not over-train, and recovering from when I do train."
Fitch said his motivation to train hard comes from an organization he recently joined.
"The charity is 'Active Heroes' [and] the campaign is 'Carry the Fallen,' where we're doing everything that we can to raise money and awareness to intervene, mitigate and reduce the trigger points of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies in veterans," Fitch said.
The organization was started by Fitch's close friend, Troy Yocum, a former Soldier who returned from his deployment and wanted to do something to help veterans.
"He walked with a whole bunch of gear, kind of like rucking, across the whole continental United States," said Fitch. "He got so much attention and (donations) from this that he started up this nonprofit."
On Nov. 10, Veterans Day weekend, about 200 people around the world, including Fitch, will be rucking for 12 hours to raise money and awareness for veterans and families who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideations and tendencies. Fitch said the campaign allows for the offering of financial support, counseling and retreats for veterans in need.
To date, Fitch and Team Minuteman have already raised thousands of dollars, and the totals rise daily.
Fitch said he is blown away by the amount of support from people across the nation.
The team is planning to ruck from Hopkinton to Boston, which will include following the Boston Marathon route.
"It depends how fast we move; we might rack up 30 to 35 miles," Fitch said.
Fitch said the organization and the cause have kept him motivated.
"I think without having things like this to focus on, I probably wouldn't be as mentally resilient as I have been," Fitch said.
Fitch also said he is willing to do anything that he can to help.
"Since I have started this campaign, I have had Soldiers that I have worked with in the past, (and) people that I've never talked to in my life, become very open with me about how important it is to them," Fitch said, "because they lost their buddy or they lost their brother, or their father committed suicide. It's pretty dark to hear these things, but it's good that they're talking about it."
To learn more information about Fitch and the "Carry the Fallen" campaign, visit http://bit.ly/1fGBxEQ.