COLUMBUS — According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Some say the number may even be higher.
Diagnosing the cause of the problem is not easy, a solution can’t be found simply, but one Columbus man — a veteran himself — is going to try.
Kyle Killinger is running 3,000 miles across the country, starting in California and ending in Washington D.C., to help raise awareness for veterans who die by suicide.
He says talking about the problem is one important step forward. He created the nonprofit, ‘Because He’s My Brother’ to raise awareness for veteran suicide and for those who suffer from PTSD.
“It’s sad and knowing the statistic that 22 veterans die by suicide every day is life-changing for me because I’m not okay with that,” Killinger said. “PTSD and suicide have been a taboo subject for years and I think we’re making big strides to change that and bring awareness to it and make sure these people that are struggling know that they’re not alone. We can help them.”
Killinger served in the Marines from 2007 to 2009. He was not deployed and doesn’t suffer from PTSD himself but carries the weight of depression on his shoulders regardless.
“After I got out I basically shut everything out with the military… got into a really low point in my life, a real bad drinking problem and everything else. I didn’t know what to do with my life, had no direction, nothing,” Killinger recollected. “It can be hard to get up every morning but knowing what I’m doing it for… the people I’ve met along the way, they say I’ve inspired them, and that’s not what I’m trying to do necessarily, I just want to help people… that helps get me up every day.”
From Nevada to Arizona, Texas and Missouri, Kyle Killinger’s journey has taken him just about everywhere, even back home.
“When I planned the route, I knew that I wanted to come through here. The closer I got, the more excited I got because it’s like I’m almost done. This is the last real long stretch,” Killinger said. “If I’ve got all that behind me, the rest is, well… it’s not all downhill, it’s not gonna be easy, cause the terrain from here on out is ridiculous.”
With nearly 500 miles to go, Killinger says he’s lost 41 pounds in his months-long trek. A trailer follows near him while he runs during the day, he rests inside it after long days… his journey, he says has helped him let go and find peace on the road.
“You have a lot of alone time out there, I think about everything and I think about nothing at the same time. I’ve found that in everything there is something good and it’s not always easy to see that,” Killinger said. “I’m horrible about carrying things around my entire life… grudges or just not letting things go… it can be tough.”
But there are two things, at least, he’s proud to carry. Pictures of his fallen friends and random veterans who have died by suicide.
“I carry Levi with me every day cause I got a wristband of him too, but when I do get the pictures out, Levi and AJ are the ones I carry the most,” Killinger said. “His death hit even harder because I knew him. I knew his wife and his kids and stuff so… that kinda stuff is like, yeah… this is why I’m doing it.”
AJ was close with James Stofel, the vice president of a Columbus Biker Club Branch, when he was stationed nearby. His death sent shockwaves through the community.
“It’s not easy. It never is,” Stofel said. “Unfortunately in my career we’ve had a lot of suicides that I personally know of and AJ is a big reason why Killinger’s actually running today. People have demons. They have trouble talking so what Kyle’s trying to do is raise awareness to identify some of those things to try to prevent those.”
“To get the word out is just the beginning. The second is education.”
Killinger is raising money along the way. Some of the proceeds keep him going, filling the trailer with gas and renting camping spaces across the country, but the rest all goes to Save 22. An Ohio based nonprofit that works to prevent veteran suicide.
“Step one is talking. We talk and raise awareness and bring light to this issue that is happening and the second is action. That is where Save 22 and other great groups come in,” Killinger said. “Those people put their life on the line and I’m just running across the country. It’s nothing compared to what they’re doing. What they’ve done.”
Step by step, stride for stride, Killinger’s journey of 3,000 miles brings him right back home for one special night at the Fraternal Order of Eagles 741 for some pasta with friends who have taught him sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.
“There are days when I deal with the demons, you know,” Killinger said. “The things that haunt me and the things I’ve went through and everything else in life. Then there’s days where I’m like, ‘This is what I’m doing it for, this is who I’m helping out.’ It’s worth it all. I tell people all the time, the physical part, it sucks, but I’ll rest. I’ll get better.”