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Walk calls attention to soldier suicides

What happens when battle buddies return from war only to be scattered to the four winds?

In the case of one battalion, they find a cause to rally around: preventing soldier suicides.

Two former members of 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry, are going coast to coast on their "Walk of Life." Today, fellow veteran Jason Bebo of Fletcher will join them for three weeks on the next 400-mile leg of their journey.

Bebo is one of the walk's primary organizers. He has mapped the hikers' routes and coordinated events with local veterans' organizations along the way. Last Sunday he brought tears to a few eyes as he spoke about the project to members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lawton.

Bebo retired from the Army in 2011 after 20 years of service. Always an infantryman, he was assigned multiple times to 1-24 Infantry. If the name of his old unit rings a bell, that's because it was one of the original "Buffalo Soldier" outfits created by Congress after the Civil War. Bebo was there when it was reactivated at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1995. He was also there when it was re-flagged from the 24th Infantry to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Armored Cavalry, in 2006. The battalion then moved to Germany, and he went with it.

But before it was restationed, 1-24 Infantry went on a yearlong deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"When we were in Mosul in 2004-2005, every day you expected to get shot at or blown up from one thing or another. Within 49 hours I got hit with two vehicle-borne IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Bebo said.

The 36 members of his platoon had received 28 or 29 Purple Heart Medals by the end of the tour. The unit as a whole had 665 soldiers and 184 Purple Hearts.

"One guy had three. And he earned two of them riding with me. In that 49-hour window he had two Purple Hearts. It singed my eyebrows, but that was the extent of my physical injuries," he said.

"Our chow hall was bombed in 2005. It killed 18 people. Some of our men were in there eating chow. Guys sitting next to them, killed. The guy beside them walks away unscathed. The question lingers: Why? And unfortunately it eats away at a lot of veterans, because how do you justify your life when the guy next to you had much more to live for?" Bebo asks.

Members of his old outfit came up with the idea of a Walk for Life last year. There were originally going to be five walkers, but due to family or financial issues, it boiled down to two, Adam Lingo and Joseph Cox. They started from Santa Monica Pier in California, the farthest point west in the contiguous 48 states.

What solidified it for them was a tragedy that hit close to home. On March 31, Nicholas Becker, one of the soldiers who had deployed with them, announced on Facebook that he was going to commit suicide.

"And in the two minutes it took for someone to get on the phone to him, he had walked outside and ended his life," Bebo sadly reflected.

That changed the purpose of the Walk of Life from a healing to a spiritual journey.

"Veterans' suicides  that's unacceptable. Because in our unit we've had over 20 people commit suicide since 2005," he said.

"Joseph put it in one of his interviews that if you're breathing right now, you're aware of veteran suicides. So it's gone beyond awareness. With them walking from Santa Monica to D.C., they're bringing the message to the individuals. The veterans along these small towns that are not large draws for organizations that do reach out with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or help veterans. Little towns like Adrian, Texas; 120 people. Big organizations aren't going to stop there because there's maybe only one or two veterans.

"But by walking through these small communities, they're not only talking with the veterans but they're also engaging and talking with members of the communities, who may or may not know that veterans in their area have issues.

"One of the things that they've run into and hear most is that the veterans feel alone. They get their mind at, they're the only one with that particular issue. Because when you're active duty you have all the men from your unit who are there with you. When you're in combat, they're all with you all the time.

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