NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 19, 2017) -- According to the most recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans take their own lives every day.

More than 7,400 veterans died by suicide in 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available. This accounts for 18 percent of all suicides in America. The veteran population in the U.S. is less than nine percent.

In an effort to raise awareness of this epidemic in our veteran ranks, eight Soldiers, former Soldiers and supporters of the military ruck marched across Massachusetts from the western border and finished in Plymouth.

Sgt. Sonya Morand, 1st Lt. Kristen Heavens, Andi Piscopo, Adam Barbrie, Al Brooks, Brendan Dunn, Sean Butler, Darren Bean and Shaun Morand took part in this march to raise awareness of veterans suicide.

"I do it for my grandfather, who was a 20-year Navy veteran," said Heavens, who came to Massachusetts from San Antonio, Texas, where she is in the Interservice Physician Assistant Program. "I never got to meet my grandfather, but I see the effects of his suicide every day. I also had a family friend who I considered a little brother take his life five years ago.

"The effects are exponential. Suicide leaves so much emptiness and hurt and a void that can never be filled. What is ironic about that is how the person who made that decision feels. Their pain is then transferred to their friends and family to carry on."

The 200 miles took the ruck marchers through 43 towns in the Commonwealth. Sgt. Sonya Morand of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine couldn't believe the outpouring of support.

"At times there weren't words to explain the response," said Morand. "It was emotional at times. We're walking at 2 a.m. and people were flooding the streets to show us their support. They were giving us water and snacks, waving their American flags and chanting 'God Bless America' and 'U.S.A.' The feeling was absolutely amazing to get that kind of support out of the blue."

Bean, a former employee of the Natick Soldier Systems Center and a retired sergeant major, coordinated the efforts for the ruck march.

"We met with more than 1,000 people in 43 towns over 72 hours," said Bean. "There were older ladies in housecoats, young boys and girls waving American flags, JROTC members presenting colors, and firefighters and police officers lined up at attention as we marched by. I saw the pain (on) our team's faces, in their bodies and the fatigue in their voice, but you never heard a single complaint. When we finished in Plymouth, extreme fatigue turned into gallons of tears and hugs. It was more emotional than any other event, with the exception of a military funeral."

Rucking for 200 miles in a 72-hour time frame takes a toll, both mentally and physically.

"I always struggle to put into words the experience during the ruck," said Heavens. "Physically, it's grueling. Once you get through the first 24 hours, it starts to add up. The lack of sleep, lots of miles, soreness and blisters challenge you both physically and mentally. None of that matters, because you know your message has so much more power than any of those challenges."

Losing one veteran to suicide is one too many, so Morand won't give up.

"There is an ugly stigma that is flooding our ranks to not seek help," said Morand. "It is scary to think that our Soldiers and veterans don't want to seek help because they fear a reprimand, hurting their career progression or (being) labeled.

"If you feel like you are in a low place or you feel like you are alone, you should always be able to feel comfortable to reach out to get help. That is why I do this. I want to raise the awareness that it is OK to seek help. It may not be in your chain of command, but there are other options available when you need help. Taking your life isn't the only option."

Heavens will also carry on.

"I do this so that people know they're not alone and there is always someone who cares for them and who is willing to support them," said Heavens. "I do this so other families don't feel the devastation and pain that my family does."

If you are thinking of harming yourself or know someone who is struggling, there are many ways to get help.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is at www.afsp.org, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.