All of us have lost someone dear, and it is difficult to say whether we are ever the same afterward. This can especially be the case when the bereavement occurs under tragic and unexpected circumstances. But if there is any sort of comforting prospect from encountering loss, it would be that sometimes a mourner can find inspiration – one that gives them the resolution and fortitude to carry onward and look after others.
Come this January, Buffalo Beauts forward-defender Ashley Birdsall will have completed nine years of service in the Minnesota Army National Guard. The Duluth native currently serves in the roles of Joint Operations Center Officer and G3 Training Technician for Joint Force Headquarters Minnesota.
Birdsall once encountered a significant loss in her life. Not only did the experience of it play a major role in pursuing a military career of her own, but it is also why she has taken such a close-to-home involvement with 23rd Veteran – a non-profit organization which seeks is to provide happier, healthier lives for veterans living with trauma.
It is important to note that depression is common among our returning veterans, with over 130,000 veteran suicides since 9/11. In 2012, it was estimated that 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
“I joined the military in 2011,” Birdsall said. “First I went through basic training. Right after basic training I left to OSC for Phase One. Phase Two was conducted in Minnesota. It’s about a year-long program. During that time of my life, I wasn’t a commission officer yet.”
“I had to complete Phase Three before that occurred, and I had really good friend growing up. He was actually close friends with my older brother. There was a group of five boys growing up. He was in the Air Force and he was very close to me. He’s one of the reasons why I joined the military, and he was just a really good person. Very special in my life. During OCS, we lost Eric to veteran suicide.”
Overcoming the Loss of a Friend
Birdsall is in her first NWHL season with the Beauts. After an NCAA playing career with University of Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets from 2008-09 through 2012-13, she played three seasons for the Minnesota Whitecaps prior to the team having joined the NWHL. Through her first five games as a Beaut, Birdsall has tallied an assist and has blocked four shots.
She sat with THW over coffee on a rainy day in Buffalo to share openly about the importance of 23rd Veteran, and how the organization is helping others.
“It was a tough time for me in my life losing Eric,” Birdsall explained. “To really just take it all in, and to experience something so profound as that. There was a time where I wanted to quit and not continue on with finishing OCS and continue my military service. But I realized that’s not what Eric would want, and that I would continue on in his remembrance and in his honor.”
The questions that we ask out of life do not always come in short order. Oftentimes they come when we least expect them. Nearly five years would pass before Birdsall would see an intermingling between two of the most important facets of her life.
23rd Veteran and Mike Waldron
“It wasn’t until 2016 when I came across Mike Waldron,” she said. “This is where I always say that the two biggest things in my life are hockey and the Army – I love the fact that both of them cross each other. You’ll meet people through hockey that you thought you’d never meet in your life. You meet people through the military that you thought you’d never meet. And then those two worlds collide.”
Birdsall went on to explain:
“Me being a hockey fanatic, I was at the rink one day skating with the boys from the Duluth Warriors Hockey Program. There was a gentleman there named Mike, and he was learning how to play hockey. I struck up a conversation with him. Very easy to talk to, very nice guy. I helped him out on the ice a little bit, and found out about this non-profit that he already had in the works, but it hadn’t kicked off officially per se, and it was called 23rd Veteran.”
Mike Waldron is the founder and Executive Director of 23rd Veteran. Waldron joined the Marine Corps as an Infantryman a week after high-school. In 2001 he spent 6 months in the Pacific Ocean where he experienced building schools in Indonesia, training on islands of Japan, and preparing for non-lethal extraction of a U.S. Ambassador.
In 2002, Waldron was meritoriously promoted to a non-commissioned officer for his dedication and duties as a Marine. Afterward, he deployed to Kuwait as a show of force leading to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Waldron and his unit were the first to cross the border in the initial invasion of Iraq, spending his 21st birthday securing enemy prisoners of war near Al-Bashara. He returned from combat after eight months overseas and was honorably discharged into civilian life.
“Experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) himself, Mike called it 23rd Veteran because the statistic is that 22 veterans commit suicide a day,” Birdsall said, “and he felt like he was the 23rd or about to be the 23rd, but found the strength to carry on. That’s very inspirational, and that’s why it’s so important to me and everyone involved. 23rd Veteran is a veteran who has felt death was a viable option, but who is still here helping others.”
23rd Veteran aims to offer their program in every state where veterans are in need with the expectation that the program drastically improves the negative symptoms of PTSD including depression, substance abuse, isolation, anxiety and many other things.
Birdsall said, “Mike explained to me the basic concepts or vision of it all was to create healthier, happier lives for veterans and assist them in transitioning back into the civilian world. It’s neat because hockey brought me that opportunity, and it was something I had been looking for during the last four years leading up to 2016 – find a way to give back in Eric’s remembrance and to do something good for the veteran community. A lifelong friendship with Mike has been created ever since then.”
How the 23rd Veteran Program Works
The crux of 23rd Veteran is its “23V Recon” program. The 14-week program is developed around fitness, camaraderie, and a positive psychology course to actively retrain veterans’ brains to live successfully in a civilian society.
Included within the program are a week-long adventure with Outward Bound, crossfit training and a positive psychology session three times a week, daily homework, fireteam accountability, and a variety of local community experiences.
Mike’s goal was to utilize the brain chemicals that are created from fitness,” Birdsall explained. “When you get your heart rate to a certain extent, these chemicals can help rewire the brain in a positive manner. Positive psychology is used to talk about topics that may bring upon negative memories, feelings, results or emotions from past trauma or past experience, but in a positive environment with positive people around you in support. The goal is that these conversations and that support also helps in rewiring the brain.”
Outward Bound is a premier provider of experience-based outdoor learning and leadership programs for both adults and youth. Founded in 1941, their outdoor education schools are located throughout the world. Tying well into 23rd Veteran, Outward Bound’s facilities are very military-like. No cell phones at all. There is plenty of camaraderie building exercises out in the field in the elements, with the intent of buildings bonds and relationships.
The Outward Bound portion is the kick-start of the 14-week program.
“After that, they come back home,” Birdsall said. “We work out three times a week in a crossfit gym. with a workout exercise conducted for an hour. After each exercise, a 30-minute positive psychology session is conducted. That’s the essence of the program. To get that exercise, and get the people in a healthier environment and mindset – physically, emotionally. One of the biggest factors of veteran suicide is isolation, so getting people out of their homes into a gym environment with other people around them to support them in a positive manner is already a huge step.”
Lastly, the later weeks of the program see civilian inclusion and activities out in the community.
“Halfway through one to three civilians will join the program,” Birdsall explained, “and do all of the workouts with the veterans and all of the positive psychology sessions. I think that definitely helps them realize that civilians aren’t the enemy. That’s a pretty heavy statement, but it’s true in some people’s minds that they may view a civilian back at home as that, just because of things they experienced in war.”
While the importance of including civilians is to help the veterans to reestablish trust and comfort with non-military, the activities are oftentimes events where they might encounter loud noises and commotion, which may have triggered previous anxiety attacks or discomfort in the past. This may include going out to restaurants, bowling alleys, or attending fireworks events.
A Wide Area of Support to Make It Happen
Birdsall, who had no prior involvement with non-profits before joining forces with Waldron, found that helping to organize requires a tremendous amount of service and strength. She is quick to thank all of the family, friends, businesses, and community members who have helped make 23rd Veteran such a success.
“I can’t really pinpoint the words to fully state how grateful I am that I’m involved,” she said. “I’ve learned so much professionally from it, and Mike is now a lifelong friend. Not only was I able to give back, but I have learned a lot. There’s a lot of work that goes into creating a non-profit. More than I think people would ever fathom or comprehend. Not only getting it structured and ready to go, but the fact that it’s based off of donations and to keep it running you have to continue getting those donations and that support.”
Donations can be made as a one-time contribution, or can be done on a monthly giving basis. There are three suggested donation amounts, and each is described in detail on the 23rd Veteran website. $6000 sends one veteran through the entire “23V Recon” program. A $600 donation is able to send them to the week-long outdoor wellness adventure with Outward Bound. A $100 donation outfits a veteran with fitness gear and a reconditioning playbook to follow throughout the 14-week program. Those interested in making a donation can click here: https://impact.23rdveteran.org/give/183253/#!/donation/checkout
“Not everything that we do may help it 100 percent,” said Birdsall, “but working towards it and those strides to help alleviate stressors, alleviate symptoms is really the ultimate goal. Showing them that it’s safe, it’s comfortable. That people outside of the military support them as well.”
Nearly Naked Ruck March
In addition to private donations and sponsorships from business and community members, the main event to raise money for 23rd Veteran is their “Nearly Naked Ruck March”.
Birdsall explained the following:
“A ruck march in the military is when you have your pack – your backpack, your ruck – packed full of gear. It’s a foot movement when you’re on a mission. You’ve got all the things that you need out in the elements and in the field – it’s all in your rucksack.”
For the participants in the “Nearly Naked Ruck March” one pound is added to his/her ruck for every $10 that is raised. Participants can sign up as individuals or as teams, and carry weight for up to 10 miles in distance. The registration fee of $49 goes directly to 23rd Veteran, and registrants receive a “swag bag” with items that might include a t-shirt or a hat. While partaking in the march, participants get to enjoy things like live music, hot chocolate stands, and popup tents and fires to get warm. At the end of the ruck, participants receive a challenge coin which shows that they completed the march.
“It’s labeled as the ‘Nearly Naked Ruck March’ because we wanted to make it fun,” said Birdsall. “We’re from Minnesota – it’s cold. The rucks in Duluth have typically been during March, so it’s extremely cold. We advocate for long-johns or less, if you’re truly up to it and the elements. There’s people out there in short-shorts and t-shirts, people out there in bathing suits, costumes. Just make it fun. Make it fun, but respectful, obviously. That’s why it’s ‘Nearly Naked’ and not ‘Naked’. It’s a lot of fun!”
Previous “Nearly Naked Ruck Marches” have been held in Duluth, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. Nov. 16th, 2019 will see the first one held on the East Coast when one will happen in Philadelphia. Those interested in participating in the Philadelphia event may register here: https://impact.23rdveteran.org/campaign/2019-nearly-naked-ruck-march-philadelphia/c238447
Why Does It Matter?
Buffalo Beauts fans have asked throughout the 2019-20 NWHL season what they can do to support the various initiatives of the players. In Birdsall’s case, lending support to 23rd Veteran can go a long ways.
“There are many ways that you can give back or support this non-profit,” she said. “One of the simplest ways is following us on social media and sharing our content. Social media platforms are amazing in this day and age to get information out there. Don’t feel obligated to support financially if you don’t have those means, but it could be something as simple as sharing a post about a local ‘Ruck March’ or sharing a news story about 23rd Veteran. Volunteering – so much volunteer work is needed for our events to occur. People’s time is just as valuable as monetary donations. We are forever grateful for that, as it takes hundreds of volunteers to be able to execute.”
It is a matter of looking out for others. As was said at the beginning, everyone has lost someone dear in our lives. We ought to have each other’s backs, and do what we can to lighten the loads of others. You may very well end up saving a life in the process.
“I think that personally,” Birdsall said, “it doesn’t cost any money or effort to be kind to people – whatever background they come from. For veterans, they took an oath, they served our country, and they gave back. It’s extremely important to put anything political or of that manner aside and treat them like a human being. They’re a human being – care for them, be kind to them, and help them feel better. Help them transition into that next stage of their life.”
Birdsall ended our conversation by addressing all veterans directly:
“If you need help, I advocate seeking that help. If you personally don’t feel comfortable seeking that help, please reach out to someone who is close to you. At the end of the day, this world will not be the same without you tomorrow, and suicide is a permanent choice to temporary problems. Please reach out for help.”
General Manager of the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL). Hockey history writer “The Hockey Writers”. Credentialed media for the NHL Combine and 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, USA. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Lifelong hockey fan for over 40 years. Proponent of the women’s game.