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Running“Look at that,” Ivan Raiklin said as he rubbed his hand over the worn tread of his running shoe.  It’s not the first pair he’s worn down since late August.

Raiklin – a Green Beret, a start-up investor, and a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate – is running with a mission. He’s trying to bring awareness to the problem of veteran suicide by running 22 miles a day in recognition of the 22 veterans estimated to die by their own hand every day.

By running in all 95 Virginia counties and all 38 independent cities, he hopes to raise money from across the Commonwealth for those groups helping to combat this epidemic.

Arriving at Pleasant Grove on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he had just crossed 705 miles. He expected to reach 715 miles before stopping for the day.

Which left him 1,061 miles more to go.

The idea

Raiklin came up with the idea for his run back in March while attending the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

“I wanted to do something positive, something challenging,” he said. Coming from the Special Forces community, he wanted to focus on veterans issues. “There are very few people who can’t get behind our veterans.”
He considered a 1,000-mile run, but taking inspiration from the “22 push-up Challenge” for veteran suicide awareness, settled on a more ambitious goal: 22 miles a day over 81 days, for a total of 1,776 miles.

The symbolism of 1776 appealed to Raiklin. Born in the bicentennial year of 1976 to parents who had fled the Soviet Union for a new life in Iowa, love of America and its history has long been a personal touchstone. 

Counting back 81 days from his desired end date of Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, this put his start date at Aug. 23. By coincidence, that was the day in 1775 that King George III declared the American colonies to be in a state of “open and avowed rebellion.” He kicked off his run at Mount Vernon, near his home in Northern Virginia.

Veteran suicide
In September the Department of Veterans Affairs released state-by-state analysis of veteran suicide rates based on a study of data from 2014.

Nationwide, 7,388 veterans were found to have committed suicide in 2014. Of those, 227 of them were Virginians. Suicides accounted for 32.9 percent of all veteran deaths in the Commonwealth that year. While this is about average with the national veteran suicide rate of 38.4 percent, it’s still well above the national suicide rate of 17 percent.

All but a dozen of the 227 suicides in Virginia were male. Almost 70 percent died by use of firearms. Just over half were over the age of 55, and 28 percent were 75 or older.

“People in the military, particularly in combat environments, are exposed to very traumatic events that most people don’t see,” said Raiklin, who has served with Special Forces operations in Afghanistan, Central America, and other hotspots over his 20 years in uniform.

Veterans often return to civilian life and find they can’t shut off the fight-or-flight response that helped them cope during deployments. This can set them up for long-term issues that can, in some cases, finally overwhelm them.

The majority of veteran suicides are over the age of 50, and Raiklin said he thinks that the lack of activity that often comes with age might contribute to their emotional distress. One of the goals of his run is to bring awareness to the role of exercise and healthy living in combatting stress and depression.

Senate race

As he jogs across the Commonwealth, Raiklin is contemplating a much different kind of race: a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018.

He said plunging into politics was not originally one of his life goals, but “I feel there’s a lack of rational, action-based leadership.”

He set up an exploratory committee in August, and as he visits communities all over Virginia, he’s taking the opportunity to talk to people and find out how they feel about issues. He won’t make a final decision for some time, but so far, he’s feeling it’s a “very strong possibility.”

Raiklin said fundraising has been the biggest challenge so far. He hopes to raise significant sums for the Wounded Warrior Project, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, the Green Beret Foundation, Victory4Veterans, and the Task Force Dagger Foundation.

But there are other, more personal challenges. His running schedule reduces the time he can spend with his wife and two small sons. The expense of traveling, lodging, meals and shoes all adds up. He had to suspend his run temporarily when his National Guard unit was called to assist with Hurricane Harvey relief. There’s also the physical wear and tear of running close to a full marathon every day.

Still, Raiklin took the positive view as he surveyed the path at Pleasant Grove. The sun wasn’t going to be beating down on him. It wasn’t as hot as it had been in recent days. Gravel and dirt is less punishing than running on pavement. He began jogging down the long road toward the trailhead. Another mile down.