Writer: Stephanie VonTrapp
Photographer: Mareike Yocum
On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Leake brothers from Raywick, Kentucky walked to Lebanon and enlisted to defend their country and fight for freedom. The three were separated but survived to return home and, like many, began a life-long career of factory work.
But surviving to return home does not mean that life returns back to normal. In 1980, after a life-long struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Joseph Leake eventually committed suicide, leaving behind a family who loved him. His grandson, Troy Yocum, always felt there must have been some way his grandfather could have been helped. After his own tours of duty in Iraq, Troy made it his personal mission to help veterans and reduce veteran suicide. The charity, Active Heroes, started as a single fundraising hike across America. Lasting 17 months, covering 7,800 miles and 37 states, the “Hike for Heroes” raised $1.3 million for military families, who may be updated with the latest MILITARY news, and brought national attention to veteran suicide. Yocum was awarded the Citizen Honors Medal by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Since 2011, he has served as the president of Active Heroes and grown the mission to serve veterans in every state. Their mission is to end veteran suicide, and they are succeeding with a brilliant commitment to the communities they serve. In the Greater Louisville Area they have created free events and seminars, a Military Family Retreat Center located in Shepherdsville, KY and now a Military Family Community Center located in Jeffersontown, KY.
I first became aware of Active Heroes when a friend (who was a disabled veteran) shared with me the story of how Active Heroes helped outfit his home when the government would not. Intrigued, I researched them online and found that more than 80 percent of the money donated goes right to the veterans who need it most. Immediately, I knew this was an exceptional organization and as the granddaughter, daughter and sister of combat veterans, I felt compelled to contribute to the effort to reduce these numbers. I started participating in fundraising events and encouraging others to do the same. One of the first things we completed was a ruck-march called, “Carry the Fallen.” It was an emotional experience, and I will never forget as we bowed our heads in prayer for our fallen countrymen in Cave Hill Cemetery. Since then, our work with Active Heroes has only grown.
According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD is defined as a mental health issue that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, such as combat, an assault, an injury or natural disaster. One of the most common types of trauma that causes PTSD is combat. Symptoms can include hopelessness, depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic pain, unemployment, homelessness and the inability to sustain lasting, healthy relationships. The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation reports that if left untreated, PTSD can also last for the remainder of one’s life. The most recent reports state that the veteran suicide rate is still twice that of civilians. For Active Heroes, even one veteran suicide is one too many. There is a great amount of hope and many who are committed to helping our young men and women coming home with PTSD.
“The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do,” says Donna Salib, mother of an American soldier and Active Heroes volunteer. Donna got connected with Active Heroes while her son was deployed and has been a passionate supporter ever since.
As the General Manager of the Louisville Athletic Club in Jeffersontown, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be of assistance. There, I am responsible for facilitating a welcoming space where our community members can come to relieve stress, exercise their bodies, and relax their minds. Physical activity has been proven to be the single most controllable thing any of us can do to improve our health. The more we keep our bodies active, the greater chance we will have at keeping our minds sharp and healthy. Active Heroes knows this and uses activity to inspire, motivate and connect veterans.
Several years ago, we began partnering with them for the annual “Pound Challenge.” Those who participated attempted to lift a total of 22 million pounds in order to inspire others to donate to the cause. Why lift weight for inspiration? The weight is intended to represent not just the physical burdens our soldiers have but the emotional ones as well. The significance of the number 22 is that at Active Heroes inception the Department of Veterans Affairs was reporting a veteran suicide rate of 22 veterans per day. Since then, Active Heroes has played an integral part in reducing that number to 20 per day.
In February, Active Heroes opened a new Official Military Family Community Center inside the Louisville Athletic Club in Jeffersontown. The Grand Opening Event is scheduled for Saturday, March 24. It is free of charge for military families and veterans.
The event will have a yoga class and a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class followed by a dinner with guest speakers and a free raffle for prizes. In future months, tentatively the last weekend each month, Active Heroes will host a Military Family Event. Throughout the month there will be other services for veterans and their families – they include guitar lessons, acupuncture, reiki, massage and more. The community center will also serve to connect veterans with peer mentors, job opportunities, financial and investment advice, veteran family scholarships and educational classes and seminars. There will also be a trained professional on staff who can assist if a veteran comes in with PTSD. As the Community Center grows, they hope to offer even more resources free of charge to military families.
We are grateful to have the resources to offer these families in our community a chance to connect and get healthier together. After 20 years in the health and wellness industry, I’ve come to discover that all of us are hoping for the same thing in life. We all just want to live our best life possible, but that is not always easy. We need the support and confidence of others to lift us up when we get beaten down.
For veterans it is the same, but often they are also carrying the invisible burden of PTSD. If you or anyone you know is suffering from PTSD and looking for a community that can help, please tell them about Active Heroes and the Official Military Community Center located inside the Louisville Athletic Club Jeffersontown, 9565 Taylorsville Rd. 40299. For more information on how you can help visit activeheros.org or call 502-277-9280.