One Mesa business woman wants to bring awareness to the fact that 22 military veterans commit suicide every day because it’s personal for her.
Emily Aiton, marketing director for 88.7FM The Pulse Radio at the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT), whose best friend’s husband, an Army Ranger, committed suicide in July 2015. Aiton had known Antouine Castaneda for 12 years and was maid-of-honor at his wedding.
“I was frustrated and angry that this kept happening to our veterans when they came home, especially with my husband being a Marine and the majority of our friends and family having served,” Aiton said, adding that after she brought attention to the issue, 22 Too Many reached out to Castaneda’s wife Sharon, to help her and their daughters. “They were the nonprofit I decided to align with because of what they do for families.”
Every day, approximately 22 veterans take their own lives, many due to the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress (PTS), and the negative stigma in the military community around seeking help. Veterans don’t suffer alone; the families suffer a complicated grief long after the loss of a loved one.
Seeking to build awareness for the problem, Aiton created the inaugural 22 Too Many 5K Walk/Run that will be tomorrow, Nov. 5, at EVIT in Mesa, 1601 W. Main St. A portion of the proceeds will be donated directly to the national nonprofit, 22 Too Many. For more information, visit http://pulseradio.fm/22TooMany or call 480-461-4157.
“Being a marketing director of 88.7FM The Pulse located at The East Valley Institute of Technology, I knew I had the resources to try to make a difference. I saw the 5K events that brought awareness and people to causes, and knew that would be a good fit to help veterans. 22 Too Many founders are marathon runners who encourage people who are participating in them to run, or walk, with a photo of the person they lost on their back to build awareness.
“EVIT had a 5K event a few years ago for the law enforcement division, so I went to the teacher, Mr. Montoya, and he helped me with most of the details. We mapped out the course, and he even gave me over 30 of his students as volunteers that he would give extra credits to,” Aiton said. “I looked at the sponsors and new contacts that I had made at the station, and that helped in building the event and having table sponsors, where all the money they contributed would go back to the charity. The work I had in front of me was to get all of management at the school to approve of the event. I was so thrilled that my manager signed off and took it to the top and we were given the entire campus for the event.”
The 5K course is three laps around the EVIT campus, the run is chip-timed and doesn’t require any street closures, no major street crossings to endanger participants. It is a kid friendly and dog friendly event.
“Since posting and promoting the event, I have received so many emails from people who have lost a loved one, so I know that there is more awareness that is needed to this issue and for what 22 Too Many is doing to help families,” Aiton said. “We are encouraging people who are registered to run or walk the event, to bring photos of their loved one to wear on the back of their T-shirts. We will have photos of Antouine that people can wear and 22 Too Many will be bringing photos of soldier’s who have taken their lives and they have received permission from families to promote.
“Wearing the photos of their loved ones can help with closure as well,” Aiton continued. “Antouine was buried in Michigan, so I didn’t get to attend his funeral to honor him. This event gives me, and my husband and friends who also didn’t attend, the opportunity to honor and celebrate his life. I created this event and am walking to honor him.”
22 Too Many
The nonprofit, 22 Too Many, stepped in to help Castaneda’s wife and two children after his death. They are committed to increasing public knowledge and awareness of PTS, honoring the memory of the fallen who have been lost to a PTS related cause, as well as providing comfort and support to their mourning families.
Keri Jacobs and Danya Harrison, co-founders of the nonprofit 22 Too Many, are marathon runners and began running for soldiers who took their lives due to PTSD. They began running with the photos of the fallen servicemen/woman on their backs to honor them, after receiving permission from the family and encourage others to run in events and do the same. Any medals won are sent back to the grieving family to show respect for their service. Through various events, they seek to serve as a living memorial, reduce the stigma by increasing public knowledge and awareness of PTS, share helpful resources, and provide support and comfort to the grieving families left behind. For more information, visit www.22toomany.com.
Castaneda was larger than life, making friends everywhere he went. He was trained as an Army Ranger, even part of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s security team when Cheney visited Afghanistan. He went back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple tours, only coming home for a month at a time. While serving as a Blackwater agent after his successful Army tours, Castaneda was in a bad accident that took him from his security career. That is when his mental health plummeted, and Aiton feels Castaneda died before he physically died.
Castaneda was yet another veteran who attempted to get help at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, for his mental health, that was shuffled around and given no help. One night the two couples were out at a restaurant and Castaneda said he was going to the bathroom, only to then disappear and be found walking down the road insisting he was “doing recon.”
“When I brought this event up in the advisory meeting, Frank Leutz, whose show Wrench Nation airs from our radio station 88.7FM The Pulse, shared that he was a veteran and that he wanted to help,” Aiton said. “I shared with him that I was happy that he really understood the need for the event and it would be great to have his family and staff come and walk. He said, ‘Oh no, I really want to get behind this.’ Then he shared with the group that he wanted to donate a mechanically refurbished vehicle. We know Frank to be a generous and giving person, yet this was over the top! So on behalf of his business, Desert Car Care of Chandler, they have donated a 2003 Buick Rendevous that we will sell raffle tickets for.”
Leutz explained: “When I was 17-years-old, I enlisted in the Navy and served in many areas of the world, such as the Persian Gulf. I will take the opportunity to help another veteran when I can. We don’t do enough for veterans in our country at the federal level and we can’t rely on them to help in all the ways that are needed.
“When we experience deep personal pain, having this event is a phenomenal way to help not only the individual who puts it together, like Emily in this case, yet it provides an opportunity for all of us to heal wounds that we have in our lives,” Leutz continued. “Personally, I don’t know a veteran who has committed suicide, yet I can understand the circumstances that could lead to this. What Emily is doing to honor her friend Antouine, and other veterans, is inspiring and it can lead to more acts of service from others.”
This event starts and finishes at the East Valley Institute of Technology and features a 5K distance for walkers and runners. The 5K Run will be chip-timed by Startline Racing. All participants will receive a custom event shirt. Raffle tickets are being sold for $10 each or 3 for $25.
Schedule: 7 a.m. registration and packet pick-up opens; 8 a.m. 5K Run/Walk begins; 9:15 a.m. award ceremony.
Adult walkers and runners: $25 registration fee includes an official T-shirt. Registration fee is $30 on day of event.
Student walkers: Registration and more information is online at http://pulseradio.fm.
Additional resources: Veterans Crisis Line for veterans suffering from PTSD and their loved ones: Call 1-800-273-8255 and Veterans Press 1, chat online.