By day's end today, 22 military veterans will have committed suicide. And 22 more tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
The Hugh T. Gregory American Legion Post 63 is working to change that number to zero and is hosting the third annual community Challenge 22 in downtown Winter Garden Saturday, Nov. 16. The day is centered on a 2.2-mile walk that will raise awareness of veteran suicide and raise funds for Project: VetRelief, a legion organization that supports military veterans in time of hardship.
The event begins and ends at Crooked Can Brewing Company, and the community is being invited to participate and pay tribute to veterans and learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many war veterans.
American Legion Commander Kurt Gies would like to have 2,000 walkers participate and hopes to see everyone in red, white and blue or their military gear.
"It's very informal what we're going to do," Gies said. "A lot of the vets will be wearing their rucks, but it's not a requirement."
Miniature rucksacks — similar to the large, rugged backpacks used in the military — will be for sale that day, as will T-shirts, Koozies and wrist bands.
The program begins at 11 a.m., when a few speakers will talk about Americanism.
"We kind of celebrate the country," Gies said. "You can't talk about suicide all day. We talk about it, and then we celebrate."
At noon, the walk begins. Afterward, all Vietnam War veterans who served military active duty from 1955 to 1975 will be recognized with the Vietnam War 50th-anniversary pin.
"A lot of people don't know that almost half of suicides are Vietnam vets," Gies said. "They went to a war they didn't want to go to, they came back to an ungrateful America. ... They're just done, and they're taking their lives."
Live music takes place throughout the afternoon and evening, beginning with Sean Holcomb at 2 p.m. He will be joined by Robbie Merrill, bass guitar player with the rock band Godsmack, for a jam session. Local bands The Down Brothers Band and Switch are performing, too, at 4 and 7 p.m., respectively.
There will be silent auctions, raffles, food vendors, children's games and a Christmas Tree of HOPE. Local Junior ROTC groups have been invited to participate, and several have committed to attend.
"If we can let these kids know — the future of our military — if they know about the PTSD and stress and how to stop it, we can stop this crisis," Gies said.
A motorcycle group called Patriot Guard Riders is setting up a Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall and a Global War on Terrorism Wall, which honors soldiers killed after Sept. 11, 2001, at the legion post.
The event is free, but donations will be accepted. This year's goal is to raise $100,000, Gies said. The legion is asking folks to register their attendance at wgal63.org to give organizers an estimate of the number of guests. Golf carts will be available for veterans who need assistance. A tent will be set up on the north end of the baseball fields at Central Avenue and Smith Street.
Raffle and silent auction items still are needed. To inquire about donating, call the American Legion at (407) 656-6361.