Marvin Ayla knows the perils of post-traumatic stress disorder all too well.
After three Army tours of Iraq as a combat infantryman, he was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. While he's worked hard to acclimate to life after the military, several friends from his days in the service have taken their lives, including a former roommate who committed suicide just last year.
"We all deal with different issues when we come back," said 34-year-old Ayla, who left the service in 2013 after 14 years and is now a student at St. Petersburg College. "Some have survivors guilt and that seems to drive a lot of suicides."
But Ayla hopes that a grass roots concept to unite veterans around the United States will help reduce the number of suicides. It's called the Silkies Hike, and it was founded by best friends and Marines, Capt. Danny Maher (Ret.) and Sgt. Ryan Loya. Participants, who are either active duty, reservists or retired, hike 22 kilometers, while carrying a 22 kilogram backpack and dressed in combat boots and the green gym shorts, known as 'silkies,' made famous by the Marines.
But the mission of each hike is a serious one, an effort to prevent the 22 U.S. veteran suicides that take place each day.
After a small, but successful first Silkies Hike, Tampa's second hike will take place Saturday. As many as 250 participants, from as far away as Texas, are expected to take part.
As they hike, veterans "tell war stories that no one understands but them," noted Terri Lynn Sugar-Robertson, a self-described "military brat" who organizes Silkies Hikes along the East Coast for Irreverent Warriors, the nonprofit veterans group behind the concept.
"The only way to deal with the demons is through humor. It's a bond we (civilians) won't ever understand."
The walks are intended to build camaraderie, allow for veterans to bond with one another and share their experiences, something Ayla says many veterans miss when they return home to everyday life. Hike leaders also ensure that no one walks alone.
At it's best, the Silkies Hikes offers peer to peer counseling, a chance to re-connect and share resources. "It's unorthodox therapy, but it's successful therapy," added Ayla, who is taking part in his third hike.
"We network and get these vets (to meet) other vets," said Sugar-Robertson. "They may not realize that someone 5 miles away from them is also a vet and they can do buddy checks."
Although the hikes are solely intended for past and present military personnel, civilians are encouraged to show their support at each of the five stops along the hiking route which begins and ends in Ybor City.
In the future, Irreverent Warriors plans to hold fundraising events to sponsor additional hikes throughout Central Florida.
"These hikes are really saving lives," Ayla said.
Contact Candace Rotolo at [email protected]