MARION – Twenty-two veterans take their own lives each day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dan McNeill, a U.S. Army veteran who has had his own battles with post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing combat in Iraq after three years, wanted to do something about it. The 46-year-old Marion resident was discharged in 2010.
So McNeill and other volunteers of the Carbondale-based This Able Veteran decided to help raise money for the organization by putting together their first Color Run for 22, a 5K run held Saturday at MarionHigh School.
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McNeill is among dozens who have benefitted from This Able Veteran, an organization that pairs veterans with trained service dogs to help overcome physical and psychological injuries.
McNeill said his yellow Labrador Retriever, Brooks, knows when McNeill is slipping into bad memories, or when he is having a nightmare. Brooks will paw at McNeill, pulling his attention away from those memories, or wake him up from the nightmares.
“He’s really made a big difference,” McNeill said. “I didn’t want to go out into crowds, I didn’t want to leave the house. I never would have come to an event like this. Now, not only am I here. I’m right in the middle of it.”
The pairing includes a three-week training program – plus food and lodging – at no cost to the veteran, though training for each dog runs about $25,000 paid with donations.
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McNeill said he didn’t have a fundraising goal in mind when organizing the run. The limit for the number of participants was set at 300, met a month before the event. About 60 people volunteered.
“It was more about raising awareness about This Able Veteran and PTSD,” McNeill said. “There are not very many people in the community that know very much about PTSD. That’s something I really want to change.”
Magdalena Gorczynska, 25, a Southern Illinois University graduate student from Chicago, said she signed up for the run because of her brother, a veteran. He is healthy, she said, but she recognizes that many others do struggle.
“It just hurts me so much to think that, that could happen to him,” she said of those who have committed suicide. “I love my brother, and I would like to bring more awareness to this event so that other people don’t have to deal with losing their siblings or parents to suicide.”
Ashley Chandler of Herrin, with her 4-year-old son, Zaiden, described herself as an avid walker as she prepared for her first 5K. She was motivated by the cause, she said.
“Anything we can do to help them out for as much as they have sacrificed for us, I’m willing to do it,” she said.
McNeill said organizers are about to begin planning next year’s event.
“I’m really impressed by the turnout, not only by the participants who showed up but by the community. Anytime I needed anything for the run, there were people there coming to me asking if I needed something.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, CentralHospital for Animals, HeartlandRegionalMedicalCenter and the Bank of Carbondale were among sponsors.