Craig Ridenhour was looking for a reason to get back in the pool. He swam on scholarship for Florida from 1989-93, contributing to four consecutive SEC championship teams. Now he wanted to log heavy miles for a worthy cause.
After doing research, Ridenhour decided to fundraise for Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit dedicated to military suicide prevention. June was mental health awareness month, and the issue hit close to home for him.
His younger brother, Matthew, served for more than 11 years in the Marines before retiring in 2012. Others he knows who have served include several friends and former teammates.
“And they, unfortunately, silently struggle,” said Ridenhour, who lives in the Westwood Lakes community in Tampa.
Ridenhour set up a fundraiser on Facebook through the 25 Mile Swim Challenge sponsored by USAA, a financial services company for military members and their families. The challenge asked people to commit to swim 25 miles in June, which was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, to raise money for and awareness of support for current and former military members at risk for suicide.
Ridenhour reached the 25-mile fundraising goal June 15, mostly at community pools in northwest Tampa. His 51-year-old shoulders told him to take a day off and recoup.
Instead, he kept racking up miles, refusing to let complications such as work travel get in the way. When June was over, he had swum 60 miles.
“The military doesn’t get a day off,” he said in mid-June. “So what are you going to do?”
His initial fundraising goal was set at $250. As of noon Tuesday, over $5,300 had been raised from over 60 donors on Ridenhour’s Facebook fundraising page.
The beginning of Ridenhour’s challenge coincided with a visit to Matthew’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina, over Memorial Day weekend. Craig, wife Allison, and their two children joined what has become a tradition for Matthew’s family, listening to taps as the veteran stands at attention.
Craig said the moment “absolutely galvanized” him. After he posted about it on his fundraising page, respondents said the story gave them “goose bumps” and “chills.”
If the cause at least “comes into their stratosphere,” Craig said, “then that’s good for me.”
“I’ll do whatever small part I can,” he later said, “but it also just made me look at it and think of how else I can help on a regular basis and not just get into the pool for a month.”
Stop Soldier Suicide’s Claire Lankford, who works in donor outreach, said all the money raised by individual donors or challenges like Craig’s directly fund the work of wellness coordinators. She said the organization this year already has served over 900 veterans, who remain with the same specialist once they are assigned.
The phone line is staffed 24/7. High-risk clients generally stay in the program for eight to 10 months but are free to call back at any time, as more than 20 did following the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan last August. Staffers also work with veterans service organizations to provide case-specific support ranging from emergency housing to service animals.
Not one of the more than 3,500 clients, Lankford said, has been lost to suicide in the organization’s 10 years of operation. An internal analysis determined its services saved 147 lives last year, she said.
The challenge is still steep. More than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide since 2001, Stop Soldier Suicide says. That’s a little more than the population of Clearwater. The veteran suicide rate was over 52% higher than the civilian rate in 2019, the most recent data in a report last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“What we’re doing is working,” said Lankford, who noted the organization has about 60 employees, most of whom work directly with clients. “We’re just small.”
Craig Ridenhour said that raising awareness to ensure these types of programs and support systems are in place is the least he can do.
Matthew, 44, knows the public hears about military suicide, but he’s not sure everyone understands that every veteran is fighting or has fought a battle.
He said it was “pretty apparent” he was struggling after returning in 2005 from the first of his two tours in Iraq. He can’t recall if he talked with his brother directly about it but said Craig was “very supportive.”
“He loved me through it,” said Matthew, who is running to regain his seat on the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners in the November election.
Matthew, who reached the rank of staff sergeant, became a sort of counselor himself for fellow Marines. He has had several conversations with buddies late at night who “weren’t doing so well,” he said. Thankfully, he said, they’re all “still here.”
“But, yeah, I definitely know some Marines who have gone through some dark times,” he said, “and continue, I guess, to go through them, really.”
It’s why his brother swam over double his initial mileage goal. Matthew wasn’t surprised.
“There’s no just kind of going through the motions with Craig,” he said.
Contact Greg McKenna at email@example.com. Follow @McKennaGregjed.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.
Contact Stop Soldier Suicide at stopsoldiersuicide.org or 1-844-317-1136.