Frank Lachinski learned two years ago that more than 1,000 veterans and military personnel die by suicide every year, and that was a statistic that stuck in his mind.
As a Vietnam War veteran, he wanted to help raise awareness about the statistic.
Lachinski, from Pengilly, Minn., figured that he knew two things: how to paddle a canoe and where the Mississippi River started and ended.
So Lachinski decided that canoeing down the Mississippi River was the best way to raise money for Stop Soldier Suicide with the help of Dave Hardy, who is from Nashwauk, Minn. Lachinski and Hardy started the 2,000-mile journey on June 3 at Itasca State Park and are taking a pause in the trip to regroup and strategize. Hardy said they will travel to Iowa on Sept. 6 and resume paddling on Sept. 7.
Stop Soldier Suicide, a veteran-founded and led organization, provides resources including mental health support, housing service and suicide prevention intervention. The organization has served more than 1,400 service members and veterans in 2022, according to the Stop Soldier Suicide's website.
Hardy and Lachinski's partnership started in Grand Rapids, Minn. Lachinski was having his canoe wrapped in vinyl at a shop when Hardy's truck in the parking lot grabbed his attention.
Hardy calls the truck a "driving billboard' for Stop Soldier Suicide, which is decorated with the organization's logo and information as well as military symbols including a soldier and a bald eagle.
The truck's decorations honor Hardy's son David, who died by suicide more than a year ago.
Hardy and his son both served in the 934th Airlift Wing. After Hardy's son died, he set up a fundraiser on Facebook to commemorate his birthday and raise money for Stop Soldier Suicide.
When Lachinski learned about Stop Soldier Suicide through Hardy at the shop, he proposed canoeing down the Mississippi River to raise more money and wanted Hardy's help.
Lachinski's cause hit close to home, Hardy said. "I don't want to have any other parents have to go through the same crap that I'm facing right now," Hardy said.
Lachinski has started canoeing as early as 7 a.m. and traveled 14 to 40 miles depending on the weather. The hardest part of the trip so far was the first few days, he said.
Lachinski navigated through nature's challenges such as log jams and branches that fell into the river as he paddled.
Hardy drives downstream to meet Lachinski where he plans to finish paddling for the day. He then arranges logistic details such as taking photos and where to sleep for the night.
Mississippi River Angels works with Hardy to find daily housing. The private Facebook group is made up of people who open up their homes for those canoeing down the river.
Lachinski and Hardy set up a Facebook page called Mississippi River Paddle for Stop Soldier Suicide that provides daily updates and photos. There also is a link to a fundraising page set up in memory of Hardy's son. More than $21,600 has been raised, according to the site.
In 2022, there were were 6,146 veteran suicides, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Jim Tuorila, Veterans of Foreign Wars Minnesota state officer in charge of mental health and suicide prevention, said that veterans who go on deployment to countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan are exposed to high levels of stress and potentially life-threatening events.
Along with cases of post-traumatic stress disorder that veterans experience, Tuorila said many may suffer a moral injury.
"That's where a lot of the suicides I've worked with were people who felt that they can never be forgiven for what they did in combat," Tuorila said.
While the person has to make the call to ask for help, Hardy wants to at least let people know that help is available. That is why he is helping raise money with Lachinski and why he drives around with a phone number for a suicide prevention program splashed across his vehicle.
"If I can just help one person by driving a truck around as a billboard on mental health suicide awareness, then so be it," Hardy said.
Where to find help
Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, namimn.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You also can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.