Dozens of Operation Iron Ruck participants gathered at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn to begin the 151-mile march to the University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. (Photos by Kat Stofer/Veterans Resource Center)
As fans from all over the state prepare to flood Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch the iconic Iron Bowl matchup, there’s one group of students encouraging fans to pay attention to something else entirely.
Student veterans from Auburn University and the University of Alabama are putting their rivalry aside to bring awareness to the epidemic of veteran suicide through Operation Iron Ruck.
“For the players, the Iron Bowl is about sportsmanship. For the fans, it’s about fellowship and cheering for their team,” said Veterans Resource Center Director Puck Esposito. “But for my fellow veterans and myself, it’s about an opportunity to fulfill our responsibility to our fellow men and women in uniform.”
Each day, 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide, a startling statistic that inspired Operation Iron Ruck (OIR) six years ago. Since 2018, in the three days before the Iron Bowl, members of the University of Alabama Campus Veterans Association and Auburn Student Veterans Association march 151 miles from stadium to stadium to bring awareness to this issue, give back to their communities and build camaraderie.
“To anyone who has ever been a part of this event, once you’ve done it, you realize how much you needed it,” said OIR Coordinator Clayton Buchanan.
On Nov. 22, participants will depart from the Walk of Champions in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to begin the ruck to Jordan-Hare Stadium carrying a game ball. Veterans from both schools will also carry a 22-pound backpack that represents the 22 veteran lives lost each day along with 22 blank dog tags. Each backpack, also called a rucksack, is filled with items collected from the public that are then donated to organizations that support veterans and their families.
OIR is no small task, both physically and logistically. From organizing participants to planning the Thursday Thanksgiving dinner, student veterans from both schools have dedicated much time and energy in support of the event. Uniquely, this is exactly what OIR was created for: to create community centered around a common mission.
“Iron Ruck takes a village. It takes a lot of people to get this thing off the ground, but there’s a reason we do it year after year,” Buchanan said. “Iron Ruck is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us.”
Thanks to the hard work of the veterans associations at both schools along with their many partners, this year’s ruck will be the largest in OIR history. Because of this, the event needs volunteers and donations.
There are many ways to support OIR from donating items for rucksacks to serving Thanksgiving dinner, and anyone interested in donating may find the full list of volunteer opportunities online. State Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Kent Davis encourages Alabama citizens to get involved with the event, and he has no doubt it will make a difference.
“Suicide prevention is a serious topic and a sad one, but it’s one we all need to talk about because it will take everyone’s involvement to overcome this issue,” Davis said. “Campaigns like Iron Ruck have a significant impact in Alabama and far beyond getting the word out.”
When the planning and marching is all over, the heart of Operation Iron Ruck is what really stands out. Auburn Student Veterans Association President Drew Lufkin wants fellow veterans to feel encouraged long after the ruck is over.
“If you are a man or woman who has served this country, and it feels like the walls are closing in, I’ve been there and I know how you feel. Keep pushing,” Lufkin said. “We are your family, and the Auburn Family takes care of each other.”