Veterans gathered wearing floral shirts, American flag shorts, bead necklaces, Star Wars hats, and face paint in the Piesanos parking lot on University Avenue Saturday morning.
New participants and old, strangers and friends embraced each other like it was a family reunion and bickered like siblings.
“You look ridiculous,” one veteran joked to another.
Aside from fun colorful clothes, they wore 50-pound ruck sacks on their backs as a reminder of those who’ve passed on.
“That weight is to symbolize the weight of depression and mental health issues that took some of their brothers and sisters from them,” Sugar said.
The seventh annual Florida4warriors Gainesville Silkies Ruck took place Saturday with the mission to bring veterans together to create a network of friendships and combat veteran suicide. About 30 military members lined up in the parking lot outside of Piesanos on University Avenue, where they started and finished the ruck.
“Silkies” are small workout shorts made famous by the Marine Corps. “Rucks,” or “rucksack,” is military slang for a backpack. A silkies ruck entails wearing the tiny shorts and while carrying rucks that weigh 22 kilograms (48.5 pounds) for about 22 kilometers (13.7 miles). The 22 motif symbolizes the 22 veterans who commit suicide everyday, according to the 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide data report.
This year’s ruck was dedicated to Nicolo “Nico” Jacob Esformes, said Tamara Sugar, co-founder of Florida4warriors. Esformes was a long-time member within the veteran community and took his own life earlier in the week.
Sugar, AKA Momma Bear, 53, started Florida4warriors with her sister, Terri Lynn Sugar. The non-profit organization based out of Tampa hosts silkies rucks all over the state in cities like Orlando, Jacksonville, Panama City, Tallahassee, Miami and Sarasota. Sugar said Gainesville is one of the most welcoming cities for this event.
Gainesville is also one of the cities where Florida4warriors receives the most calls for help from veterans, Sugar said. They seek shelter or are struggling with food security and mental health.
“We will do whatever it takes to ensure that not only are they here, but they’re here with a good quality of life,” Sugar said.
Sona Herlamb, 40 and an Air Force veteran, serves as the medic for the rucks. He described the organization as life-saving because he said veterans lose sight of their purpose when they stop serving, and that’s when Florida4warriors steps in. With events like silkies rucks, camping trips, bar tabs and family events, military members spend hours together and discuss day-to-day issues.
“This gives us a nice, little outlet,” Herlamb said. “To say ‘I’m struggling. I need help, and I don’t want to look weak. I need some help to understand this life.’”
Sugar and her sister did not serve in the military, but they grew up in a military family. Sugar’s son, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and multiple generations beyond all served, she said.
She has witnessed firsthand how difficult it is for veterans to readapt to society after watching her friend Brian Moran enlist in the Army after 9/11. He got injured while serving in the Middle East in 2006 and then struggled adjusting to civilian life.
In 2010, Moran took his own life.
To honor his memory, Sugar and her sister created a support system for veterans and address issues with life after service.
“He sat down at the place that he and my son used to fish at every day and took his life,” Sugar said. “My sister and I decided this just can’t be happening.”
After years of volunteering and working with other organizations and charities, Sugar and her sister created Florida4warriors in 2017. They were motivated by countless stories they heard that were similar to Moran’s. Florida4warriors also routinely collaborates with other organizations that have similar missions, including One Team One Fight 4 PTSD, Get Off The Bus and Sea 2 Sea 4 PTSD.
AJ Hutchinson, a 43-year-old Gainesville veteran, served in the Marine Corps for 12 years then served for two years with the Army National Guard. He retired in 2013. After participating in other rucks before Florida4warriors’ inception, he wanted to bring a similar organization to Gainesville. Hutchinson joined Sugar and her sister as one of the original members of Florida4warriors.
“It (the organization) helped me out of some very trying times,” he said. “Now I’m there to help other people so they can see that it can get better.”
Whenever he has a difficult day, Hutchinson texts a group chat of fellow vets to meet for dinner to talk, laugh and forget. For them, these events provide mental health support and an emotional release through humor, trust and bonds.
Amanda Baldwin, 33, met Hutchinson a few years ago during the worst days of her life, she said. She is active duty and serving in the Army National Guard going on 16 years. After joining Florida4warriors, she found new friends that treat her like family.
“There’s just some bonds that are different,” Baldwin said. “What we all went through sucked, but we went through it together.”
Today, she works with Florida4warriors to coordinate supplies for the ruck and female veteran outreach. Each year, she sees more and more veterans participating in the non-profit’s events.
“It brings something to people, that just makes them smile,” Baldwin said. “You can get away from what sucks or what’s hurting for a little bit, and people can take that away here for you, even for a day or a few hours.”
Through humor and camaraderie, Sugar hopes her organization can build friendships that last a lifetime.
“If they’re in crisis, they now have a list of friends and they won’t immediately put that gun up,” Sugar said. “They’ll call somebody, and that’s the goal of these events: Giving them a family.”
Florida4warriors began hosting events again in the beginning of 2021 after taking a year off during 2020 due to the pandemic. Veterans were more than ready to get back to events, she said. The year off was difficult for many who needed the fellowship Florida4warriors offers. They hosted Zoom “happy hours” to stay connected.
Sugar has witnessed the burden that veterans carry and how it affects their families and hopes to give veterans the same sense of purpose they had while they served.
“The sole goal is to make sure our vets know yesterday, today and tomorrow they are worth it,” she said. “They’re committed to us, and we’re committed to them.”