Terminally ill armed forces vet Justin Fitch hopes to leave behind a remarkable legacy: ending veteran suicides.
Twenty-two veterans per day—nearly one per hour—end their own lives. Nearly 8,000 a year. Roughly 6,700 soldiers have been killed in action since September 11, 2001, the longest stretch of continuous military action in American history.
"I don't view these as statistics," says Justin Fitch, a 2005 Michigan Tech graduate and retired Army major. "These are people. Imagine if a loaded Boeing 757 crashed every week. The nation would be interested in that. It would be on the news."
Ten years after commencement, Fitch is fighting to bring awareness to these numbers, even as his days pass in a way few his age could understand.
"It's surgeries, and recovering from surgeries," he says. "Otherwise it's three days of chemo every other week. That's why I was medically retired. I have stage 4 colon cancer, which is incurable and terminal. My time on Earth is limited."
Fitch arrived at Michigan Tech in 2000 not knowing what he wanted to do. Soon, though, he found camaraderie, friendship, and mentorship in his McNair Hall "house," the Mama's Boys. He looked up to students who joined the ROTC program, and before his second year, he too decided to join—further motivated by the events of September 11, which occurred just one month later.
He graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor's of Science in Business Administration, a concentration in Industrial Marketing and Management, and a minor in Military Science. Unlike most graduates at commencement, Fitch was in uniform, commissioned as an officer, initially stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Until the last several months, Fitch's military career was active, including service with the 2-27th Infantry, with whom he deployed to Hawijah, Iraq, for more than a year. More recently, he was a company commander based in Boston, overseeing a team working in research and development in an engineering detachment.
"It was a very interesting job," he says. "I enjoyed it. But obviously I cannot do the things I used to be able to do as a soldier."
That Fitch still has days to pass is something he finds motivating, and he is determined to use them to help others.
Suicide prevention is an issue that is deeply personal to Fitch. It's something he understands, it's something he relates to.
It's something he once attempted.
"There was a big stigma in the military about suicide at the time," he says, referring to his own attempt when deployed to Iraq the first time. "That's an archaic way of thinking. Mental wounds are real."
The stigma of mental illness is a very real obstacle, and not only within the military. Fitch puts it into perspective alongside other illnesses and injuries.
"You have a real injury," he says. "If you broke your arm, you'd get help. You'd go get yourself healed. That just makes sense. It only makes sense to get this injury treated, too. Not all wounds are visible. There's a culture that years ago, only the weak get help. That's BS. Getting help is not a sign of weakness—I believe it is a sign of strength."
Today, Fitch contemplates the end of his life as a matter of how much he can get done. He got involved with Carry the Fallen, a project of the non-profit Active Heroes, after hearing about their mission to raise awareness and find ways to prevent veteran suicides. Their focus is on helping veterans and their families.
"I'm credible on this issue, facing death the way I am," he says. "People listen to you when you're in this state. I use that soapbox to speak out on this issue as loudly as possible, to talk about this project."
Carry the Fallen organizes rucks—a march with a heavy pack of gear strapped to your back. He put in his first marathon-length ruck along the Boston Marathon route in 2013.
"We bring veterans and civilians together to carry this same burden so many veterans carry every day. If we even lower the number by one or two, that's a success. Just for one day—that's success."Justin Fitch
"I've completed a total of five of these," he says. "As my health has declined, I haven't been physically able to do the entire last couple of marches. I'm there working a support vehicle."
Ruck marches go anywhere from three to twenty-two hours.
"Twenty-two is obviously the hardest ruck—and the most symbolic," says Fitch. "We bring veterans and civilians together to carry this same burden so many veterans carry every day. If we even lower the number by one or two, that's a success. Just for one day—that's success."
Once Fitch was medically retired from the armed forces, he moved from Boston to Wisconsin. Pleasant Prairie is where he now sleeps and gets his mail, but his work—and that of Carry the Fallen—is to build a home for veterans and their families to interact, communicate, and heal.
"All of this money is working to build the national American veterans family retreat," Fitch explains. "It's 144 acres in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, near Fort Knox. We're in the building phase, but already working to bring civilian volunteers together to build infrastructure. We'll have cabins, campgrounds, and a lake is being built for the calm of fishing."
Also in the works for the welcome center is job training, resume writing classes, job fairs, and resiliency training. "It's really just a beautiful plan, and I'm absolutely confident it's going to work."
They've raised more than $500,000 for the retreat—more than 10 percent of the goal. Contributors in Justin's name have donated $86,000, and already enough of the retreat is in place to start making a difference. "The retreat is already functional," he says. "As we get it closer to completion, it just gets more and more effective. I'm just trying to make as much as possible happen before I die."
Despite deteriorating health conditions, Fitch fights to live his life to its fullest while dedicating what time he can to Carry the Fallen. His most recent Carry the Fallen event was March 21. Friends and family in his hometown of Hayward, Wisconsin, set up and lead the ruck march in Hayward. Justin joined them to ruck as many miles as he could.
The numbers he's marching against—statistics behind suicides—are sobering. About 23 percent of all suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up a small percentage of the population. And one misconception Fitch is dealing with is that it's only young veterans coming back from recent conflicts.
"A significant portion are the older generation," he says. "40 percent or so were deployed prior to 9/11. That's the epidemic we face. My mission is to bring the twenty-two veteran suicides a day down to zero. That's a very, very difficult goal to achieve, but you can't achieve something great unless you have a great goal."
Fitch's great goal is not just going after the numbers, but also making a difference where it means the most: among the people around us. Suicide and mental health issues affect all of us, and every bit we do can make a difference for the people closest to us. Justin believes that every day, every minute, is a gift. He is going to use his wisely.
"Civilians and veterans: get help if you need it. It's not a sign of weakness. You aren't weak. And look out for each other. A phone call and a visit can save a life."
Fitch is doing what he can with the time he has left. Every dollar raised is a step closer to seeing the retreat completed, and every step along the path is making a difference in the lives of everyone this effort touches.
"We know we had one person who was going to commit suicide the day of our march. He showed up and put on a ruck instead. And that's one! That's one who is still with us for another day."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.