Despite some rough seas during a 22-mile trip from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson Aug. 31, military veterans paddled their kayaks onto the beach on Harborfront Park, with plenty to celebrate.
For the second year in a row, several local members of the armed forces and friends have taken part in The Veterans Kayak PTSD Awareness Challenge in an effort to raise money and awareness for veterans suffering from mental health issues and to help reduce the veteran suicide rate, is 22 suicides a day and more than 8,000 a year, according to data released by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016.
Many of these suicides are directly related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-induced stress and depression, according to the website for 22Kill, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about veterans’ issues.
But through the six-hour excursion, which began at the downtown Bridgeport Harbor at around 11 a.m. and ended at the Port Jeff shore at around 5 p.m., more than $60,000 was raised and will go toward the development of a new program to support the veterans in need.
As the eight kayaks came to shore, the veterans were greeted with cheers from a crowded pier.
“It was pretty rough out there today; it’s physical and mental because you can see Long Island from Connecticut, so it just never seems like Long Island is getting any closer,” said Army veteran Frank Lombardi with a laugh. “[But] we had the camaraderie out there to get us through it. It’s awesome, we’re kind of like our own little family.”
It was Lombardi who got the initiative in motion last year after he was horrified to learn the suicide rate statistics, he said. Together with fellow Army veteran Chris Levi, who lost both his legs in 2008 while serving in Iraq, he organized the veteran groups to take the trip across the Long Island Sound. He said he hope the fundraiser will only grow from here on out.
Lombardi, assistant to the CEO of Independent Group Home Living in Manorville, is developing the new program funded with the proceeds raised by the kayak journey, with the nonprofit Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, which provides services to domestic violence and rape victims, many of whom suffer from PTSD.
“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gets 14,000 calls into the suicide hotline every week and they really can’t handle that volume so we really wanted to do something,” Lombardi said.
Levi, whose spirit prevailed after spending many years in hospitals undergoing surgery and a difficult rehabilitation process, said he loves spending time with his military brothers and sisters.
“Being able to do these events are what bring us back together in groups and it’s something I always look forward to,” Levi said.
The veteran offered insight into just how difficult kayaking across the Long Island Sound is.
“If I were to quit, I wouldn’t be quitting myself, I’d be quitting the group,” he said. “If anybody gives up, we all give up. Also last year I never applied suntan lotion. This year I learned my lesson and applied copious amounts.”
Glenn Moody, a Marine Corps veteran and Port Jefferson resident who participated in the trek, said this was the first day he’d ever been on a kayak.
“It’s for a great cause and when you’ve got all these veterans out here doing the same thing, it’s enough to push you,” Moody said. “We’re trying to get together as a team and help veterans out. The suicide numbers are too high, and those of us who served don’t want to see our brothers and sisters keep dying. I didn’t even know any of these guys and we all became best friends on the water.”