On the Sunday morning before last week’s start of the 2016 season opener, Steven Easley was driving to Tuscaloosa. He’d been home two weeks after serving in Afghanistan as a Marine and was eager to get back on the road. There was an urgent message in his BlackBerry that could prompt just such a drive.
Easley didn’t make it all the way to Auburn, but he did make it from Tuscaloosa to Auburn and more. About 40 Alabama students, most of them veterans or their spouses or spouses of veterans, walked Sunday morning across the Five Points Bridge from Tuscaloosa to Auburn to raise awareness of veteran suicide. Easley, a co-organizer of the initiative known as “Stride Toward Freedom,” and his group of students and family members carried the banner bearing the name of 22 veterans who have died by suicide this year alone.
“That was the name we wanted to use,” said senior Cadet Joshua Geerman, a service medic who served in Afghanistan as a paratrooper with the Infantry 3rd Brigade Combat Team. “22 is a high number that people don’t think of.”
The march, organized by Geerman and several other students in Geerman’s floor of the college’s dormitory, was in part an homage to Maj. Ben Coleman, a 2010 graduate of the university who took his own life last December, his family said.
Speakers at the morning’s event hailed Geerman, who recently completed three tours in Afghanistan, for his bravery and his activism for soldiers like his own. Geerman’s father, Dan, a retired Army major, said the only solace he has in his grief is that his son made it safely to Afghanistan and that the world he served in didn’t turn on him as the war in Iraq did.
Easley, a married infantry sergeant with two children who deployed to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan in 2011, was inspired by his own depression to share his own story. He talked to a large local media contingent of Alabama alums about his experience and another local Marine and two Vietnam veterans, but felt there was a need for a larger public awareness campaign.
“We want more people to realize that this happens and that we can do something about it,” Easley said. “Not only for me and to make my life better, but also the next generation of soldiers coming to a lot of the colleges we are going to right now.”
Easley’s baby brother, Dustin, came with him to Monday’s opening game against Arkansas State. On his way into the stadium Monday night, Dustin Easley told the crowd about his brother’s training in combat and said he came away from Tuscaloosa with confidence.
“I just got back from Iraq, and this is exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to hear when I was there,” he said. “We are getting people all fired up. They got this common goal and they are going to fight hard until we win this war. I just want to thank them all.”
No rally at Jordan-Hare Stadium. No protest signs or T-shirts at the cheerleaders’ World Series of Charm. But since being booted from the flag football game following national anthem protests earlier in the season, Alabama remains an example of a reaction to the debate on what college football sidelines should look like. Players are continuing to kneel during the anthem; coaches and administrators are directing their players not to join them, although they are advising them to speak out on social issues instead.
“Our message is that we will stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” Geerman said. “That’s why I made this march. I stand for the 22 people that have taken their own lives in a way that nobody else in the world should have to. We are trying to get the word out and help prevent suicides among our veterans.”