By Staff Sgt. Brandon Ames, 177th Military Police Brigade, Michigan National GuardJune 15, 2017
ISHPEMING, Mich - The average American walks approximately 10,000 steps a day, or five miles. It's typically not something a person thinks about but, at the end of the day, the numbers add up. So, could you imagine walking 644,000 steps - 322 miles - in 14 days? That's about 22 miles a day, which is also the number of Veterans who take their own lives each day in the United States. Again, a number we perhaps aren't aware of but, at the end of the day, it adds up.
Staff Sgt. Michael Beattie of Marinette, Wisconsin, and 1st Lt. Cody Cass of Marquette, Michigan, decided that this devastating statistic was something that not enough people were aware of.
Both members of the Michigan National Guard, 107th Headquarters and Headquarters Company based out of Ishpeming, Mich., Beattie and Cass went on a challenging quest from May 13th to May 26th across Michigan's Upper Peninsula in hopes of spreading a stronger message to the world and to let those who are suffering know that they are not alone.
"I've been wanting to do a hike across the U.P. and Beattie had been wanting to do something to raise awareness for Veteran suicide, so together we collaborated on the idea and saved up our vacation time to make it happen," said Cass.
During the 14-day stretch, Beattie and Cass faced harsh weather, suffered minor injuries, and received an overwhelming level of support from each and every community they passed through.
Starting in Ironwood and ending in Sault Ste. Marie, the plan of Beattie and Cass was to walk the planned route of 22 miles a day, carrying a tent inside of their 35 lb. rucksacks, and find the nearest park or campground to sleep for the night at the end of the route. Should it rain during that time, they also brought warm clothes and additional gear to keep them dry. It rained for eight of those 14 days. It even snowed at one point, yet it did not prevent Beattie or Cass from driving on with their mission to help bring Veteran suicide to an end.
"The weather has been less than ideal for us, but I knew we needed to stay moving. What we are doing is for something that is bigger than us. It can keep raining, I just hope the only thing that stops is the loss of our Veterans," said Cass.
What would go on to slow them down, however, was Beattie suffering from tendinitis while passing through Ishpeming on day six.
Tendinitis is the inflammation of a tendon as a result of overuse. By the time Beattie developed this in the region of his lower shin, both he and Cass had each walked more than 140 miles. Even though he was ordered to stay off of his feet, Beattie would go on to walk an average of two miles each day with crutches and his rucksack still on his back. To hear that he had to sit out the remainder of the journey was devastating news to Beattie because he had other reasons to keep going, aside from the fact of finishing what he started. He felt as though people were counting on him, and he was right.
"I met a woman on day three who lost her husband, which hit me pretty hard. She came running out of her truck with tears in her eyes to hug us and let us know how important our cause is," said Beattie. "That is the exact reason why we are doing this, and that is to prevent other families from having to go through this. Knowing that Cass was still out there pushing had me feeling like I can't totally sit this one out. I still wanted to contribute to what we started as much as I can."
The amount of outreach and support from the community was beyond what Beattie and Cass expected. Nearly every restaurant they passed offered a free meal, along with nearly every hotel offering to put them up for the night. While passing through Newberry, firetrucks from the Newberry Fire Department were set up to show their support. During the same day, Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, Adjutant General of the Michigan National Guard, flew out to support Beattie and Cass, and commend them for their efforts of creating awareness.
"People are aware that we lose Veterans to them taking their own lives, but I don't believe they realize just how staggering that number really is," said Vadnais. "Even one life is too many. By doing what these guys are doing, I believe the message is becoming stronger to current and former service members that it is okay to seek help."
Every two miles or so of each day, people would get out of their cars to ask if there was anything they could do or if they could donate money because they saw what Beattie and Cass were doing on the local news the previous night.
"The only thing we asked people to do each time is to reach out to a Veteran. Whether they were hurting or not, it costs nothing to be a friend to someone," said Beattie. "We also asked people to share the message of what we we're doing on social media to help get the word out to more people and finally bring this to an end."
According to Facebook analytics, Cass and Beattie's message had reached more than 400,000 people across the country during the 14-day journey. Their videos and photos were shared by Veterans groups, suicide awareness groups, military families, news outlets, and more. Although the message reached a respectable number of people and in order to make a lasting impact on Veterans, the message of Veteran suicide prevention must continue to get out.
On the last day, Cass and Beattie were led by a supportive convoy of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Department, Sault Ste. Marie Fire Department, Michigan State Police and U.S Customs and Border Patrol. At the very end, they were welcomed by the support of friends and family members, as well of those who were following their journey on Facebook and news outlets.
"The injury that I developed on our journey directly tied in with what got us out to do this in the first place. I thought I could walk it off and it would get better, but it didn't. It finally got to the point that I realized it wasn't going to get any better until I got help," said Beattie. "There is nothing wrong with putting temporary pride aside to avoid long-term damage. If you need help, get help."
The rainy days of their journey eventually led to sunshine. The injuries sustained from the lengthy walk healed with time. The community support throughout let them know that they were not alone. When they were hurting, they leaned on each other to make it through. If you are reading this, know that you are not alone either.
"All too often service members do not seek help because of the stigma attached," said Vadnais. "It is time to break that stigma and safeguard the wellbeing of our Guard family, from Detroit to Marquette and from Ironwood to Port Huron."
Service members in need can receive help by calling the 24/7 Crisis Support Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or by texting 838255 to receive free, confidential support from trained personnel.