Chief Warrant Officer 3 Aaron Hunnel, the health and wellness program manager for the Wisconsin National Guard, will bike 3,100 miles from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland for his “Ride 2 Stop Suicide” starting September 11, 2021.
His ride aims to raise awareness and create a community for veterans struggling with mental health. Hunnel was inspired to create this event after a Guardsmen in one of the Comprehensive Health Wellness courses that he manages admitted he was struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“When I was talking with this individual after we’d gotten them treatment at the VA, I realized that connection is so important,” said Hunnel. “It made me think of the mental health stigma in the veteran community and the risk for suicide and the problem around suicide, and I realized I could be doing more. I’m already working to improve mental health in the military via the (Wisconsin National Guard’s) Comprehensive Health and Wellness program, maybe I could improve the mental health culture in the veteran population as well.”
Hunnel is also part of a working group led by the Wisconsin National Guard’s Service Member Support Division and the Guard’s behavioral health team developing tools and resources focused on increasing mental health awareness and overall comprehensive wellness across the 10,000-member Wisconsin National Guard. The working group – formed over the past several months has worked to develop resilience and communication tools, vignettes, and scenarios aimed at mental health as well as physical, social, spiritual, and financial wellness that units can integrate into their training.
The group is also working to promote regular “personal maintenance,” increase awareness of mental and physical wellness issues, connect Guard members with mental health resources, and encourage Soldiers and Airmen within the Wisconsin National Guard to seek assistance from professionals, when needed. Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, addressed the topic in his monthly video message to Wisconsin National Guard troops here.
While biking across the country, Hunnel will be pulling an empty trailer behind his bike symbolizing military members lost to suicide. He believes that Soldiers and Airmen often struggle with a loss of purpose and connection after leaving the service or returning from deployment.
September is also National Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide continues to be an issue the organization, the military, and society faces, and the Wisconsin National Guard is heavily focused on ensuring troops have the resources and connections they need to maintain mental health – whether they face challenges related to their military or personal lives.
Spc. Mikaela Bolker, a forward signal support specialist from the 104th Aviation Support Battalion in West Bend, Wisconsin recently returned from a deployment and is also participating in the event. Bolker has experienced how difficult it can be to lose that sense of community. She believes it’s even more difficult for drill-status Guard members who return to work civilian jobs and may only have that community of military people available to them one weekend a month.
“When Soldiers deploy, it’s unfortunately too common for them to feel forgotten about by their families and friends at home, or forgotten about once they return home,” said Bolker. “This can be very isolating. No matter how someone’s deployment experience was overseas, once they get home they can sometimes feel like nobody understands what they’re going through. It can be hard to readjust surrounded by civilians who don’t always understand how lucky they are to live in the U.S. I think it’s easy for Soldiers not to realize how hard the transition from overseas to civilian life is until it’s too late.”
Hunnel believes service members and veterans need tools to help them establish that purpose and connection and attain access to a new mission. In this case, life is the mission and a bike is the tool that can cultivate a new sense of purpose and community of like-minded people. Taking his own advice, Hunnel will be completing his mission with a team of like-minded people, including his event crew chief Staff Sgt. Kenneth Browne, a drill sergeant at the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I’ve lost too many friends to suicide, and I’m tired of hearing that people felt alone and that they had no other way to cope than to take their lives,” said Browne. “I’m here because if I can show just one person that they are not alone and that there are still people that care and will fight with and for them then this whole thing has been worth it. We are a family and we take care of our own.”
Browne explained that the event has multiple benefits. Exercise has been shown to increase resilience and impact people’s general attitude and mood in a positive way. Developing a new skill and completing goals within that skill will also create a feeling of achievement and purpose. He hopes the community created by the event will give service members the courage to reach out and ask for help when they need it.
“It’s ok to struggle, it’s ok to not feel right all the time, but they can talk and be heard without judgment or fear of reprimand,” said Browne. “With compassion, we will create a family and we will end the suicide epidemic that’s harming our veteran community.”
Hunnel purposefully chose to begin the event on September 11 in a nod to a time when many people came together to overcome challenges and pain. He hopes people are reminded of that time and the feeling of a community coming together to break through adversity. Browne was in 7th grade on September 11, 2001 and remembers that day well.
“The one thing that I’ll never forget is that on September 12, the day after the towers fell, every house in my neighborhood had a flag out and they started a community food drive and medical supply drive to send to New York,” said Browne. “I don’t ever want to see another 9/11 in my life, and I pray my kids never have to see something like that either, but I wish everyone could see what September 12 was like and feel the unity that we all felt.”