KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Every day, 22 U.S. veterans die by suicide.
It’s a statistic that saddens thousands of families, friends and veterans around the world. That’s where the Irreverent Warriors come in.
The organization acts as a network for thousands of veterans to find humor, camaraderie and friendship among other veterans.
The organization’s goal is to improve mental health among active and retired service members and reduce the number of veteran suicides.
To accomplish those goals, Irreverent Warriors hosts several social events throughout the year. Perhaps, their most well-known events are the Silkies Hikes. Since the genesis of this organization in 2015, there have been over 50,000 attendees in 125 participating cities. Knoxville is one of those cities. This year they’re hosting the 3rd annual Silkies Hike. More than 200 people walked with humor and camaraderie.
A few years ago, Christopher Welch saw an Instagram ad for a hiking group. He joined out of curiosity.
“I said, Hey, I'm gonna go try this, see what it's like. And I fell in love with it. This is my fifth hike now,” Welch said.
He has hiked in several different Irreverent Warrior groups in different cities. He said the bond is what keeps bringing him back.
“Nobody here is is mean to each other,” Welch said. “Everyone's here just to accept each other as brothers and sisters.”
Among veterans, the bond is very strong. Many of them deal with the trauma of losing friends and loved ones to suicide or on the battlefield, others are plagued with vivid memories of war and most struggle with the process of reacclimating to civilian society.
“You definitely get isolated, especially being a vet because you just come from such a different lifestyle compared to civilian and the humor is different, the way of life is just totally different,” said Jeremy Burwell.
He came down with his friend Jordan Hemlinger from South Carolina. The two heard about the hike on TikTok.
“We drove up here yesterday, but we just wanted to check it out and see if it was as good a time as it looked,” Hemlinger said.
It was a good time. Some attendees dressed up in American flag shorts waved flags, built friendships and drank local beer. However, the reason for the event was not forgotten.
“Every life is precious,” Welch said. “I mean, you go through all this hell of being a Soldier, Marine, Airman, whatever, and you don't, you people don't need to lose their life to suicide after all that.”
Candie Bobrick, the coordinator for the Knoxville chapter of Irreverent Warriors said building community is their biggest chance at decreasing the 22 veteran suicides a day statistic.
“It is real, and I think just about everyone here has probably lost someone that they had served with, or someone that a family member or a really close friend,” Bobrick said. “And a lot of the times you don't even know that they're going to do it until it's too late. And you get the call that they're not here anymore.”
But, from the connections she’s witnessed at the hikes, she said there’s hope.
“I had actually met someone at an event that said that the only reason he's still here is that he knows he always has another hike to look forward to,” Bobrick said.