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Operation Obstacle aims to support Central Illinois veterans

Herald & Review - 9/26/2023

Sep. 23—DECATUR — Eliana Kopetz's two grandfathers are both veterans who served during the Vietnam War.

It was in their honor that she signed up for Operation Obstacle, a two-mile obstacle course event sponsored by the VA Illiana Healthcare System to raise awareness of veteran suicide. This was the third year for the effort.

"I've never done it before, and I think it'd be good to support veteran suicide awareness," Kopetz said.

Statistically, an average of 17 veterans a day die by suicide. The money raised at the event will support Richland'sVeterans Resource Center, which serves some 100 veterans enrolled at the college.

A 2021 study by the Cost of War Project concluded that since 9/11, four times as many service members and veterans have died by suicide as have perished in combat. The study detailed stress factors particular to military life: "high exposure to trauma — mental, physical, moral, and sexual — stress and burnout, the influence of the military's hegemonic masculine culture, continued access to guns, and the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life."

You don't have to be a mental health professional to check in with someone to see if they're OK, said Hannah Jordan, suicide prevention specialist with VA Illiana. If someone is struggling, go ahead and ask, and offer to assist them in finding help. Veterans can call 988 and press 1 to be connected to someone who can help them, not only if they're having thoughts of harming themselves, but with any need they might have.

VA Illiana partnered with Richland Community College for the event, which drew 70 participants and 30 volunteers. Runners were divided into "competitive," "semi-competitive," and "leisure." The leisure pace runners could skip obstacles if they wanted to.

"I've done obstacle courses before," said Bema Williams of Decatur, whose father is a Marine veteran. "This is my first time doing Richland's, and I just wanted to try it out."

Mia Eshoo's grandfather was in the Army and her stepfather served in the Navy, so veterans' issues are important to her.

"Supporting veterans in general is a big thing for us," she said. "Also, I've done cross-country in the past in school and in college, and I've never done a competitive run with obstacles before, so it will be interesting to see how I do."

Obstacles included jumping over fences and pipes, crawling through tunnels, and dragging concrete blocks. Men had to take two blocks at once; women took one. The two-mile course wound through Richland's campus.

The race was started in an unusual way. A sprint car, owned by Paul Shelton and driven by his son, Eric, was pushed with a four-wheeler and when the motor turned over, that was the starting "gun." The second group, the "semi-competitive" runners, started by the horn from a Decatur Fire Department truck.

And because it was a veterans' event, the Macon County Honor Guard was there to post the colors. They also explained the significance ascribed to each of the 13 folds in the traditional presentation of the American flag.

When a flag is folded formally, each fold represents something, such as the families who send sons and daughters to the military, honor for veterans who served and a tribute to the armed forces.

The final fold, when the stars are all that's visible, represents the national motto: "In God we trust."


If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, the Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

—Dial 988 then Press 1

—Chat online at

—Text 838255

Anyone in crisis, or concerned about someone in crisis, can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at any time:

—Call 988

—Chat online at

The Associated Press contributed.


Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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