This November, student veterans from Auburn University and the University of Alabama will begin their annual march across the state, traveling the 151 miles from Jordan-Hare to Bryant-Denny on foot.
Called Operation Iron Ruck, this march’s goal is to raise awareness for veteran suicide. While the destination changes each year, the goal does not.
“I have seen first-hand the effects of veteran suicide, so I was really interested in Operation Iron Ruck,” said Clayton Buchanan, junior in professional flight and philanthropy director of the Auburn Student Veterans Association. “This event really does mean a lot to me.”
Depending on where the Iron Bowl is hosted each particular year, the march will start from the away team’s stadium and will finish at the home team’s stadium. The game will be played in Tuscaloosa this year, which is why the march will start in Auburn on Nov. 25.
The march is accomplished with a shift system that includes marching, resting and supporting, split into seven mile increments. During the “ruck march,” participants carry a rucksack, which weighs 22 pounds. This tradition corresponds to the Mission 22 suicide campaign, which provides help for veterans with post-traumatic stress, brain injuries or any other problems in which they may need help.
The rucksack will contain toiletries, undergarments, canned goods and any other items that are collected by the two schools’ athletic and veteran departments. Monetary donations along with these items will be given to charities helping veterans such as Mission 22, 3 Hots and a Cot and Alabama State Veterans Homes.
“I transferred into Auburn as a junior and became involved with the University Veteran Association here,” Buchanan said. “They really helped me with transitioning to a bigger college, I really enjoyed being involved with the organization and wanted to help them in any way I could. This is one way in which I saw they needed help.”
Buchanan explained that his position helps plan and organize Operation Iron Ruck. He mentioned that the event has a lot that goes into it, especially with planning and figuring out the logistics of it.
“Operation Iron Ruck is the philanthropy director’s main event that they focus on planning,” Buchanan said. “I wanted to be as involved as possible with this event, so this is why I applied for my position.”
Last year, the event had about 50 participants in the march itself. They also have many support vehicles which helped to keep the ruck march going. On Thanksgiving Day, the participants completely stopped marching and ate a Thanksgiving meal provided by volunteers.
“We have many people who support us and participate in the event,” Buchanan said. “This year we are still taking volunteers – currently we have about thirty – but this is a joint event with the University of Alabama, so we usually have about thirty on each side.”
One of the main effects of COVID-19 on the march’s logistics was felt through the rotations of the different shifts. For the resting shift, student veterans typically sleep in an RV, but cannot this year due to health and safety regulations put in place.
In order to work around these regulations, the event is looking for a way to transport participants while they are resting in a more open-aired vehicle, as well as looking to getting open-aired tents for the Thanksgiving Day stop.
Another newly started tradition of Operation Iron Ruck is the transferring of the game ball from the stadium where the previous iron bowl was played to the stadium it will be played at for the current year.
“The official game ball is taken from Auburn to Tuscaloosa, where the presidents of the Alabama and Auburn Student Veterans Association will have a ceremony on the field to present the game ball to the officials,” Buchanan said. “This started as a tradition last year.”
Started by the former president and vice president of the Auburn Student Veteran’s Association, the ruck march was intended to bring awareness to the 22 veterans who are lost to suicide each day. By bringing awareness to this issue, the former president and vice president hoped to help prevent it from happening, according to Buchanan. The first march took place in 2018.
“We are still taking in donations for this event which can be found on our Facebook page,” Buchanan said.
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