March For The Prevention Of Veteran Suicides

Participants head off from Trader’s Cove Park and Marina, over the Mantoloking Bridge, as part of the Ruck It march. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

BRICK – Can anything be done to stop the staggering number of combat veterans who commit suicide after they come back home?

Yes, says Dennis Addesso, a former Marine Platoon Sergeant who, along with his brother-in-law John Cohen, co-founded Ma Deuce Deuce, one of the organizations founded to help veterans who suffer from PTSD and combat stress.

In order to raise awareness for the epidemic of veteran suicides, Ma Deuce Deuce held the first annual “Ruck It” march on Saturday, July 22, when 172 people paid $22 to participate in the 22-kilometer march that ran from Traders Cove Park & Marina in Brick to Seaside Heights.

Many carried 22-pound rucksacks to symbolize the burdens carried by veterans after they come home.

Brick Police Officer John Gannaio, left, of Warhorse SCUBA, and Ma Deuce Deuce founder Dennis Addesso, right, use the Ruck It walk to bring attention to veteran suicide. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

The number 22 is significant because that is the national average of veterans who kill themselves each day, Addesso said. Even the name of the organization comes from the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun favored by Marines who refer to it as the “Ma Deuce.” By integrating it with the “22 a day,” it becomes Ma Deuce Deuce, he explained.

“A ruck is a military backpack, and in the years after you transition out of the military, you fill your ruck with a lot of crap, like depression, anxiety, alcohol dependence or rage. A lot of things happen, and I was filling my ruck for 10 years,” Addesso said in a phone interview on the day before the march.

“My peaks plateaued and the valleys were getting deeper,” said Addesso, who did two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

“My mind and my heart were in the wrong place. My marriage was falling apart. I was snapping at my kids,” he said. “I hoped death would meet me.”

Addesso said that he was on a path to self-destruction due to combat stress until he attended a 5-day program run by Operation Restored Warrior, a faith-based program based in Lake Tahoe, California, and on a horse ranch in Eagle, Colorado.

ORW was founded in 2007 and is run by a team of veterans who have helped over 700 combat veterans for free.

“You let it all out to other veterans who have gone through the same thing. It’s not like talking to some doctor who wants to know what’s bothering you,” he said. “You get assurances and validation from other guys who exactly went through what I went through, who witnessed and took part in carnage,” Addesso said.

He said the program worked for him, that instead of just having his “faith on Sundays,” he is giving God another chance and he feels like he is cured from PTSD.

“I’ve dropped my ruck. I have a very strong marriage. I’m fine now, but one of the biggest lies a veteran will tell you is that they’re fine,” Addesso said.

The estimated $7,000 raised from the Ruck It march would be used to help fund another organization for combat veterans, Warhorse SCUBA INC, that provides aquatic therapy. Warhorse SCUBA was founded by Brick Police Officer John Gannaio, a combat Air Force veteran who had nine deployments.

SCUBA diving has positive effects on personnel suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, C-spine and other disabilities.

The veterans who participate in Warhorse SCUBA must become SCUBA certified, which normally costs about $650, plus another $350 for required gear, but Joe Skimmons, owner of Divers Too in Avon, gives the organization a “significant reduction,” making it more accessible, Officer Gannaio said from Traders Cove before the march.

“Many returning veterans suffer from PTSD, whether it’s diagnosed or not, so the biggest thing today is to getting the word out about veteran suicide, that it’s not acceptable,” he said.

Participants head off from Trader’s Cove Park and Marina, over the Mantoloking Bridge, as part of the Ruck It march. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

Officer Gannaio said it can take two months on average just to get an appointment for a VA (Veterans Affairs) screening.

“It’s a crisis, and many veterans have dependency issues but are not willing to admit it,” he said.

Randy Martinez, 29, was marching for her brother, Brick resident Marine Corporal Gary Bell who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March of this year.

“I want to spread awareness for my brother. He did two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2007,” she said before the march.

She said her brother was always private and quiet about his time in Iraq, and when she asked him about PTSD he would make jokes.

“I was with him on Sunday, and on early Monday morning he killed himself,” Martinez said. “PTSD is a silent killer. Maybe this could have helped him,” she said.

Corporal Bell was 34, and he left behind a wife and two sons, ages 7 and 13.

“You never think it’s going to happen in your family,” she said. “It’s unreal.”

Since September 2016, Ma Deuce Deuce has hosted numerous community events to raise money that support the fight against the veteran suicide epidemic. Next year’s Ruck It march is planned for September 22.

The Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105 was the official rest area sponsor at Mantoloking Fire Department and Barnacle Bill’s, providing water, ice, cool down towels, candy, fruit, and snacks, Addesso added. Everyone along the route took care of the marchers very well.

“It was great to arrive to beautiful smiles and just about anything we needed to carry on to the end,” he said.

For more information about Ma Deuce Deuce, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/MaDeuceDeuce. For more information about Warhorse SCUBA, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/warhorsescuba or warhorsescuba.com.

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Judy moved to Ocean County from New York City in 1988, and began her second career as a feature and news reporter in the mid-1990's. She has worked for Micromedia Publications since 2008, primarily reporting for The Toms River Times and The Brick Times. Judy has also worked for The Leader Review in Point Pleasant Beach, The Brick Communicator and The Asbury Park Press. Reach Judy by e-mail at [email protected]