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Kayaker to trek 444 miles to raise funds vs. veteran suicide

Veteran suicide rates are still higher than the rest of the population. (U.S. Army Reserve/Released)

A Pennsylvania man will launch a 444-mile river journey in Cooperstown on Friday, May 1, in order to raise money to combat and raise awareness about soldier deaths by suicide.

Jeff Loeffler, a restaurant owner from Saint Marys, Pennsylvania, will paddle the Susquehanna River, from Cooperstown to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland to raise money for the nonprofit group Stop Soldier Suicide.

“If there is anybody we should help, it is service members and their families,” Loeffler told The Daily Star on Thursday, April 30, before he drove to Cooperstown.

“Stop Soldier Suicide is a great organization,” Loeffler said. “They’re not trying to put a band-aid on the issue. They are trying to stop the issue at its core. They’re not just helping veterans. They’re helping their spouses. They’re helping their teen children. They’re helping the whole families.

“They are not just a hotline,” he continued. “They have a staff of counselors, who continue to work with the soldiers and their families for several years. They really stick with the entire family.”

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According to a media release from Stop Soldier Suicide, Loeffler’s goal is to raise $25 for every mile he paddles, or $11,000. He had raised about $2,000 by the beginning of the week, the release said.

“Because of the coronavirus, I might not raise as much money as I hoped,” Loeffler said, “but I still wanted to do this, because raising money is only one part of the plan. Raising awareness is also part of the project.”

Loeffler said he has been planning the trip for about a year. An avid whitewater kayaker, he said he heard about the issue with soldier suicides on a radio program. About the same time, a friend and customer of his restaurant died from suicide, he said. When he started to research the issue, he said he found Stop Soldier Suicide and soon became a supporter of their mission.

“Every penny we raise goes to the mission and to supporting soldiers and their families,” he said.

Loeffler said his original plans included frequent stops for press conferences and a large support team to help him on his journey and to gain publicity. He had even arraigned for some local politicians to get on the water with him and paddle part of the route. However, he canceled most of those plans because of the pandemic, and will make a more solitary journey, mostly paddling alone and camping rather than staying in hotels.

Loeffler plans to launch from Cooperstown “at first light” Friday and paddle to Towanda, Pennsylvania, with a friend he often does whitewater trips with, he said. However, his friend has to return to work next week, so Loeffler will paddle the rest of the route by himself, with only a few people helping him with support along the way. He said he initially expected the trip to take 18 to 21 days, but because of heavy rains, he might be able to wrap it up a few days earlier. His longest kayak trip previously was about 60 miles, he said, but he has been training for a year to prepare for the longer trip.

“I am sure there will be a lot of stuff where I have to make adjustments as I go,” he said.

According to a 2019 report from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans have died from suicide each year from 2005 to 2017. An average of 17 veterans took their own lives every day in 2017, the report said, and veterans die from suicide at a rate of 1.5 times higher than non-veterans.

Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina, was started in 2010 by three Army veterans. According to the organization’s website, it helps veterans with mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury referrals; emergency financial aid; housing assistance; alternative therapies; post-service training and other services.

Go to www.stopsoldiersuicide.org for more information or to donate to Loeffler’s fundraiser.

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© 2020 The Daily Star