With ‘humor and camaraderie,’ veterans hike in silkies for suicide prevention

"You're with your tribe, your people, and you know everything's going to be all right."

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Erica Moser, The Day, New London, Conn. View Erica Moser, The Day, New London, Conn.'s articles

To U.S. Army veteran Doug Capazzi, the veteran community is all aware of the commonly cited figure that 22 veterans die by suicide per day, so we don't need to raise awareness. What we need to do, he said, “is be more on the prevention side.”

Enter the Irreverent Warriors Silkies Hike.

Irreverent Warriors is a group with a mission “to bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide.” The organization does so through the hikes, which are named for silkies, the traditional military training shorts.

“This is kind of the side of the veteran community that not a lot of people really see and experience,” Capazzi said, pointing to the “dark, twisted, sick sense of humor that we all really understand amongst ourselves.”

He organized a Silkies Hike in Norwich on Saturday, in which about 200 veterans, active-duty military members, National Guard and reservists walked about 10 miles from the corner of Route 82 and Laura Boulevard to Mohegan Sun, stopping at Chelsea Parade, Canggio Restaurant/Bar and Epicure Brewing — which created a new Silkies Smooth Cherry Stout for the cause — along the way.

Civilians aren't allowed to join the hike but are encouraged to join for initial festivities or at stops to “receive your veterans with cheers, hugs, kisses, photos, videos, screaming, yelling, and excessive PDA (personal displays of affection).”

This was the third Silkies Hike in Norwich, and Capazzi, who lives in Groton, got involved two years ago through his role as president of the nonprofit Guardians of the Purple Heart. Guardians was looking for more recognition on the national level while Irreverent Warriors wanted to be known more on a local level, he said, so it made sense for him to volunteer.

He took on more of a leadership role with the Silkies Hike last year. He recalled that the former coordinator was leaving for Texas, and the Marine Corps veteran handed Capazzi the ceremonial bullhorn and declared, “The (expletive) is now yours.”

Capazzi said Irreverent Warriors changed his life and “keeps me out of that metaphorical rabbit hole.” Despite the challenges of COVID-19, he was determined to keep the event going.

“You cannot change so many veterans' lives and then turn around and not continue it,” he said. 

To keep each group under 100 people, per Gov. Ned Lamont's rules on gathering size, Capazzi split the attendees into two groups that started their walk a half-hour apart.

A chance for camaraderie, checking up on each other, and being yourself

Saturday's event was the ninth or 10th Silkies Hike for John Ellington, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1983 to 2003. Ellington, who lives in Manchester, N.H., also has participated in Silkies Hikes in Key West; Jacksonville; Washington, D.C.; Boston and Milford, Mass.

He said the hikes bring back a lot of camaraderie and good feelings.

“You're with your tribe, your people, and you know everything's going to be all right,” Ellington said. He added, “We're all messed up in some way, shape or form, and this is our therapy.”

Joseph Sullivan, who joined the Marines in 2009, also came down from New Hampshire, and this was his third hike in Norwich.

“These hikes are about the veteran community and bringing everyone together, and after you get out of the military one of the things is you lose your place in the world,” the 29-year-old said. In terms of suicide prevention, he spoke of being your brother's keeper, and how quickly people would show up if a veteran appeared to be in trouble.

“It gives a chance for these folks to be themselves again for a little while. No judgment zone,” said Dave Hellner, 60, who served in the Army from 1982 to 1991. “It gives folks a chance to share common experiences again that would be completely unknown to civilians.”

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Navy veteran Neil O'Brien, 48, said it's difficult to find a therapist who can relate. Like many others, the Taftville resident used the word “camaraderie” to describe the importance of the event.

Talking to O'Brien before the walk was Marvin Serruto, a Navy veteran who is now the veterans coffeehouse coordinator for Thames Valley Council for Community Action.

Serruto, who wore a “Leave no veteran behind” button, gestured to a group of paratroopers in the parking lot. “They think I'm crazy because I went on submarines and I think they're crazy because they jumped out of planes, but we understand each other,” he said.

This was the first Silkies Hike for Naila Thompson, 22, who's been in the Army for less than two years. She's been doing COVID-19 response in New Hampshire and said someone else from the unit, who's in the Air Force, thought the hike would be a good team-building experience.

It was also the first Silkies Hike for Shannon Chatteron, who has served in the U.S. Navy for almost 14 years and attended the hike with others stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.

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