On Monday, September 21 veterans Kevin Keaveny, Garrison Benz and Matthew Russell touched base in Newburgh as a stop on their 315-mile trip from Lake Tear of the Clouds to the USS Intrepid in Manhattan via kayak.
The mission of the trip is to bring awareness to Veterans suffering from suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness.
Keaveny, who founded the Hudson Valley Center for Veteran Reintegration (HVCVR), is leading the trek, which began on September 5.
The three paddlers, followed by a two-man sailboat crew for support, aim to cover 22 miles a day. They will touch base at North Cove Marina in Manhattan, completing the trip on September 30.
“It’s about showing the actual journey of this trip,” said Keaveny. “The true teamwork, going through the challenges, the bonding.”
The three veterans are relatively new friends and the trip shows “what veterans can do when they put their minds to something,” said Keaveny.
It all started in 2018 when Keaveny launched the Veterans Wooden Boat Workshop to help veterans reintegrate into their communities. The program helped reinforce “the same team building skills they are familiar with in the military.”
“What Keaveny discovered was building kayaks was secondary to what was really happening, which was healing, camaraderie, friendship between the veterans building the kayaks” said Larry Neumann from Vet2Vet, a peer networking program that offers regularly scheduled activities based on interests.
Keaveny soon saw from the Wooden Boat Program that there was an even greater need for more peer-to-peer veteran programming and he launched HVCVR.
The trip down the Hudson River is a nod to the Veterans Wooden Boat Workshop and is meant to bring awareness to veteran reintegration programs to prevent suicides.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, Neumann explained. Thirty percent of veterans returning from combat post-911 are affected by post-traumatic stress.
“We should be welcoming them home with open arms, celebrating their accomplishment and service,” said Neumann. “Let’s not let veterans come to us, sometimes that’s too late. We need to be proactive.”
According to the New York State Health Foundation, veterans die by suicide at a much higher rate than the overall state population. A similar trend is seen across the nation; despite making up eight percent of the U.S. adult population, veterans accounted for 14 percent of all deaths.
Between 2005 and 2017, the suicide rate for New York veterans between 18 and 34 years old more than doubled.
Kearney said he asks himself everyday during the trip, “Am I doing enough here to convince at least one vet to move on to the next day.”
All three veterans made the kayaks themselves with materials purchased from their local home improvement store.
Before completing the trip in New York City, they will stop in West Point on September 23. Along the way they also stopped at Albany, Kingston and Poughkeepsie.
“We’re not doing anything great,” said Keaveny. “We are a bunch of goofballs paddling down the river. But what we are doing is showing our veterans that you can get out there and you can live.”
The event on September 21 to welcome the three veterans paddling down the Hudson was led by Larry Nuemann and began with posting the colors by the Newburgh Free Academy Color Guard, followed by the national anthem.
“Veterans deserve more than to come home and not know how to fit in and not get the services or treatment that they need,” said Neumann. “Kevin Keaveny saw what was going on and said he was going to do something about that.”
State Senator Jen Metzer is advocating for her bill that would establish September 22 as Veteran Suicide Awareness and Remembrance Day.
“You’re doing so much to bring attention to a crushing issue, which is the high rate of veteran suicide in New York and our country,” said Metzger to Kearney. “This is a war and battlefield casualty.”
The month-long trip is just one way that HVCVR is raising awareness for suicide prevention among veterans.
HVCVR has a number of reintegration programs in addition to the Wooden Boat Workshop. They also offer a Wilderness Retreat, Wood Shop, Warrior Writers and Financial Readiness program. Each program aims to help and empower military men and women to create successful lives back at home and assist in the transition back to civilian life.
They do so by replicating the positive aspects of the military community through occupational therapy, camaraderie, fellowship and peer-to-peer support.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing people talk about this – I want to see people do something about it,” said Keaveny. “Whatever it is that you enjoy, share it with a vet. Do more than thank them for their service. Ask them how they are and be genuine about it.”