HEBRON, N.H. – In the days leading up to the Hidden Battles 22 for the 22, Vietnam veteran Don Jussaume and his grandson Thomas Sperounis debated between the 5K, 10K, and 22K divisions before deciding on the middle distance of the walk, run, and ruck.
Upon reaching their 10K goal, the Dracut, Mass. residents celebrated with a short water break — and then agreed to keep going along the course. The pair took 27,450 steps over four hours, 15 minutes to finish the 22K — a distance symbolic of the 22 veterans who lose their lives to suicide in America every day.
It was a particularly full-circle moment for Jussaume, 75, one of the honorees whose names were posted on signs dotting Hebron Common on May 20 — just before Memorial Day — where the scenic course began and ended. In all, more than 200 participants gathered to raise awareness for the Hidden Battles Foundation’s mission of providing treatment and counseling to combat post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation in returning military veterans, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders, including health care professionals.
Following the fourth-annual event, Sperounis, 19, described the burning sensation in his legs and feet as “a good pain, because it’s such a good cause.”
“I care a lot about our veterans,” said Sperounis, an Eagle Scout who shares assistant scout master duties with Jussaume for Troop 25 of Dracut. “They fought for our freedom, and I feel it’s our duty and responsibility to give back as much as we can. They’re our greatest generation.”
Jussaume, who was a medic in the Army during the Tet Offensive in 1968, said it took decades after returning home to understand he suffers from PTSD due to “all the things I saw that were so sad.
“I’m proud of my service. I have no regrets. But Vietnam left me with scars on my brain from the trauma,” said Jussaume, who received his draft notice and a 20th birthday card from his uncle in the mail on the same day. “I’ve never considered taking my own life, but I’m definitely concerned about other veterans who have those thoughts. That’s why I ruck [for Hidden Battles]. It’s a great organization. We need it.”
The origins of Hidden Battles can be traced to June 10, 2012, when founder Scott Hyder drove to his brother’s home in their town of Pelham, N.H., after not hearing from him for a few days. Hyder, a disabled Army veteran and longtime Westford, Mass. traffic and safety officer, was horrified to discover that Nick Hyder, a corrections officer, had taken his own life.
Following Nick’s suicide, Hyder participated in numerous Out of the Darkness Walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Feeling that “it wasn’t enough,” however, he formed Hidden Battles in 2017 in order to make a more significant local impact.
“Traumatic things [also] happen [to first responders], whether it’s CPR on a child, the death of an elderly person, or a really serious car accident. At the end of our shift, we don’t just wash it off,” Hyder said. “What Hidden Battles tries to do is preserve healthy minds so that veterans and first responders don’t bring that home.”
According to Hidden Battles board member and Tewksbury, Mass. resident Chris Hurst, 31, the volunteer-driven organization provides funds toward service dogs and events such as hikes, kayaking, fly fishing, couples cooking classes, family movie nights, New Hampshire Fisher Cats Minor League games, and peer-oriented programs that provide a safe, nonjudgmental environment for coping and healing.
Army veteran Dwayne Oothoudt, 51, said it’s important for people to tell their story “no matter how ugly it is.” While walking the 22K course for the second straight year with his wife, Lori, 44 — each carrying a backpack weighing approximately 22 pounds — the Tilton, N.H., resident said he has known “a number of people” who have ended their lives.
“I’m not doing [the 22 for 22] just to get some fresh air. There are a lot of emotions involved,” said Oothoudt, who was a corrections officer before becoming an occupational therapist. He and Lori, who wears her dedication to veterans in the form of tattoos, now run Generations Therapy, which provides care at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.
“I try to help other people understand what it’s like to be a soldier trying to transition back from a uniform into a civilian role,” said Oothoudt, admitting he still encounters difficulty despite leaving the military in 1996. “I’ve been fortunate to maintain a good career, but it’s not like that for everybody. That’s why we’re here now, and that’s why we want to keep doing this for as long as we’re able to.”
Noah Fogg of Hill, N.H., 25, wore a 30-pound backpack as he finished first in three hours, 21 minutes while volunteer musician Tyler Levs sang Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” The Marine Corps veteran walked the 10K route with family members before running the rest of the way in memory of Sergeant Erich Henry Bergemann of Waseca, Minn., 24, with whom he served.
“It’s important to struggle for the people who paid that price,” Fogg said.
Veteran Kaitlyn Walker of Dover, N.H., who ran the first 10K as planned before pushing herself to finish the entire 22K course, became emotional while texting the news to her friend, Bobbi Helmacy, in Glen Burnie, Md. Last year, the women walked the 5K together in memory of Helmacy’s son, Army Sergeant Adam Donaldson, who died from suicide at age 37 on Nov. 15, 2021.
Helmacy, who carried special mementos of her son when she came to New Hampshire last year and passed out Twizzlers “as my way of reaching out and sharing him with others,” said she was touched but not surprised that Walker kept her yearlong promise to complete the event once again in Donaldson’s honor.
“Hidden Battles is wonderful to give us all these opportunities to do the hard, physical things that our loved ones no longer can,” said Helmacy. “It does a mom a lot of good.”
For more information about Hidden Battles, including the family-friendly Pitch for the Prevention of Suicide cornhole tournament fund-raiser at the Bunting Club in Lowell on Sept. 23, visit hiddenbattlesfoundation.org. Cindy Cantrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.