At least eight. That’s how many Army veterans Steven Downey knows of who took their own lives.
Downey and his friend Drew Oakes, both Army Iraq veterans who graduated together from Stow High School, have climbed out of their own darkness and are now climbing toward Mount Everest.
The trek — which began over the weekend after they flew to Katmandu in Nepal — is about bringing attention to post-traumatic stress disorder and veteran suicide.
“Twenty-two a day, 8,000 a year,” said Downey, who served as a combat medic in 2006-07 in Iraq, citing the oft-quoted number of veterans who commit suicide. “We call them the silently fallen.”
The stunning numbers are from a Department of Veterans Affairs study in 2012, and the 22 number has become a rallying point for veterans. Researchers involved with the study cautioned that the data they used had limitations.
Downey, 29, who now lives in Akron, and Oakes, 29, who is studying at Ohio State University, are part of a six-member team of Ohio veterans climbing in high altitudes, adapting to the thinning air. They plan to reach the south base camp (elevation 17,600 feet — higher than Mount Rainier in Washington state) at the foot of Mount Everest by June 4. While in Nepal, they also plan to deliver supplies to victims of the 2015 earthquakes.
“I look at it as kind of balancing the scales of life,” Downey said before he left for Nepal. “I carried a combat weapon in a third-world country. Now I’m carrying in relief supplies to a third-world country, bringing attention to veteran suicide and [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
The trip to the base camp was organized by Summit for Soldiers, a Columbus group, with the American Legion Department of Ohio helping to pay expenses.
Summit for Soldiers is about creating nonclinical “Adven-therapy” — outdoor adventure — experiences to help veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Oakes said before the two left that the idea is about getting out there, living life and creating connections with other veterans: “If we do something like go hiking on a Saturday morning, it’s just amazing. It’s amazing how much these small gestures can change people’s lives. ... That’s the whole purpose. To repurpose vets. Re-able them in a different world.”
Hiking to the Mount Everest base camp is no small gesture, Oakes and Downey realize. The trek typically takes six to eight days, and the thin air can trigger altitude sickness in some trekkers. Deaths while hiking to and from the base camp are uncommon but a sign in one spot on the way to the camp notes “Altitude Can Kill.” (As of Friday, five people had died recently on the mountain. These were people who went beyond the base camp to reach the summit. One of these died of an apparent heart attack at night on the way back from the summit.)
Summit for Soldiers
At the base camp, the six vets plan to meet up with Summit for Soldiers co-founder Michael Fairman, a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan. He reached the top of Mount Everest on May 19 at 11 a.m. Nepal time, carrying a flag bearing the names of veterans who have taken their lives after returning home from service. Fairman reached the top of the world’s highest mountain the same day that Marine Staff Sgt. Charlie Linville became the first combat-wounded amputee veteran to reach the summit.
Fairman is a member of Legion Post 276 in Columbus, and wore a parka with the American Legion emblem on it while making the ascent to the summit of the 29,029-foot mountain.
Fairman’s first try at getting to the summit in 2014 was thwarted by an avalanche that took the lives of 16 Sherpa guides.
Tom Simons Jr., adjutant for the American Legion Department of Ohio, said it’s an unplanned coincidence the trek to the base camp is taking place over Memorial Day.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Simons said. “I’m excited for them. They are doing something they will talk about for the rest of their lives,” continuing to bring awareness to PTSD and veteran suicide.
Downey is also the founding commander of the American Legion Post 808 at the University of Akron, which is the biggest and largest Legion post on an Ohio campus. He has completed his degree requirements in speech pathology and audiology and plans to apply for graduation this summer. He lives in West Akron, with his wife, Christine.
The UA post adjutant is Jay Musson, an Army veteran who received a Purple Heart in Vietnam. Musson said he knew whom to contact when a staffer with the state Legion organization told him the group was looking to fill two slots for the trip to the base camp.
“The American Legion doesn’t have many young members,” said Musson, who noted the organization is working hard to change that. “They’re extremely familiar with our post.” The post has 120 student members.
Musson knew Downey had been with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and is into fitness. Post 808 is helping with Downey’s and Oakes’ expenses.
Downey said he had been working out regularly for a while before he heard about the trip. He’s dropped 40 pounds, he said, in a “more conscious” effort to get back into shape.
He plans to launch his UTusk fitness app when he returns from Nepal; he’s already attracted significant outside investment. Personal trainers, nutritionists and others supply content for the app. Users can follow those supplying the content and can subscribe to get more personalized content.
Excited about mission
Downey contacted his friend Oakes, who served as an Army reconnaissance scout. The two, who graduated from Stow-Munroe Falls High School in 2005, ended up serving together in Iraq — though they had not planned to do so.
Oakes, who is studying international relations and diplomacy at OSU, said he was excited to team up on a mission.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Oakes said. “I’m just really passionate about helping other people with their struggles. ... I was humbled to be part of such a bigger thing.”
Downey agreed, noting that enthusiasm for the mission goes hand-in-hand with reverence for its purpose.
“Anytime I hear about a veteran committing suicide,” he said, “I think there’s an individual who served this country who was back here, where they should feel safe, and they feel completely alone.”
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or email@example.com. Follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/KatieByardABJ.