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Raising the Bar
On a September morning at the Kentucky Army National Guard’s Wellman Armory, the thud of weights clinks against the cement floor in a staccato rhythm. Specialist Abraham Morlu executes a series of dead lifts so rapidly that he appears almost robotic. With arms shaking, he heaves in one final, swift motion, and the barbell lands with a loud clank. He collapses on a chair and laughs with gusto, allowing himself a fleeting moment of relief. A comrade gives him a one-person ovation, which Morlu accepts with a quick nod and a bow. Then, it’s back to more lifting.
Morlu, a journalist with Kentucky’s 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (MPAD), a former bobsledder on the Swiss World Championship team and a member of the 2013–2014 U.S. men’s bobsled national team that competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics, is joined on this day by 23 other iron-pumping Soldiers. His brief display of emotion is a rare sight at this mega-workout. Weight lifting isn’t supposed to be fun and games, but this session is especially serious. Everyone’s concentration seems intense, and the energy is palpable. The air is filled with a constant clank and heavy metal music, but there is little noise from the Soldiers themselves—no grunting, no chatter. The vibe is unmistakable: They have a job to do.
The weights they are bearing are not for themselves but for each other. They’re for the memory of lost comrades. They’re for the families left behind who have to endure unimaginable burdens. And they’re for any struggling Soldiers out there today who need the weight of the world lifted off their shoulders before it’s too late.
In an effort to raise awareness about suicides among Soldiers and Veterans, the Kentucky Army National Guard recently held its 22-0 Million Pound Challenge: a race among five teams of Soldiers to reach that total in one day.
An estimated 22 Veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s nearly one every hour. Over the past six years, 548 Guard Soldiers have taken their own lives. Everyone agrees those numbers are unacceptable.
“It’s a plague in the military nationwide—22 Veterans per day! That’s a number that significantly could go down with more awareness and knowledge,” says Cadet Zachary Dooley, another competitor.
This event, which was held on Sept. 17 at the Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, KY, and included informational sessions on suicide and how to help struggling buddies, is a start. And so the participants, who, like all too many Guard troops, have been impacted directly or indirectly by Soldier suicides, lift and keep lifting.
“That’s what is keeping me going,” Morlu says later. “As you’re lifting, the first thing you see on the screen [showing team scores] is ‘22 to 0.’ Then you realize that’s what you’re doing—the reason for being here is to bring that number from 22 to zero.”
No matter which team will hit the million mark first, the sense of mission and sacrifice that Morlu and the others bring to this cause make this a special day. But that was apparent before it even began.
THE PRELUDE. 8:22 A.M.
The Challenge is supposed to begin in eight minutes, but a key member of a team calling itself The Olympians has yet to arrive. Staff Sergeant Dallas Robinson (right), a recruiter and retention NCO with the 2/75th Recruiting and Retention Battalion and the Soldier who initiated the event, has been up since 5 a.m., bringing extra gym equipment to the armory. An accident on an interstate has snarled traffic, and he’s stuck.
A member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic bobsled team that competed in Sochi, Russia, Robinson has a winsome and easy manner. He co-owns a gym in nearby Lexington, and he went out of his way to contact area gyms and persuade them to lend their equipment for this event. For two days leading up to the Challenge, he drove around, collecting weights and other gear.
When he arrives this morning, he utters not one complaint. He wants no pat on the back for all his efforts. Everything about this event is about helping other people, he says.
Last year, he and four other Soldiers held the first Challenge. This year, Kentucky National Guard leadership got behind the idea and sponsored the event as a competition among teams. “When the National Guard adopted it, it made it a larger symbol—that we’re all willing to carry each other’s burdens,” Robinson says. “But we all realize that when it comes to preventing suicide, it’s going to take a long, enduring struggle to get there.”
The delayed start time doesn’t faze Soldiers. They are already stretching and lifting. “Hey boys, good news —I’m up to 239!” one boasts loudly. He and others are going at it so vigorously that they draw the attention of Colonel Michael Abell, personnel director for the Kentucky National Guard, who is overseeing the Challenge—and who is also a participant today as a member of the Over 40 team.
“Young guys are putting their egos on the bench already,” he says.
Abell says that in order for teams to lift 1 million pounds, strategy is crucial. “I think this is similar to suicide prevention,” Abell says. “It can seem overwhelming, but we have to take it in small bites, and if we do, we can beat it.”
THE RULES. 9:07 A.M.
The Soldiers stand as they listen to how the competition will work. Participants can lift in one of four ways—the bench press, the dead lift, the squat or the pull-up. Teams are free to lift at their own pace. It’s up to each individual to turn in tally sheets tracking his or her exercise and the total amount of weight lifted. Scores will be collected every 30 minutes. Progress reports for all teams will be shown on a giant screen in the front of the gym as the day progresses.
Five teams are competing: the 75th Troop Command from Louisville; the Olympians, a group of two former Olympic athletes and Soldiers from other units; the Over 40 Team of seasoned officers who are led by Abell; the 138th Field Artillery Brigade (FiB) from Lexington and Carrollton; and the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade (TAB) from Frankfort. Each team has five members, except for 75 TC, which has to make do with four because the fifth member didn’t make it.
Suddenly, the gym’s garage door opens like a theatrical curtain, revealing a cloudless blue sky, and crisp autumn air floods the armory. The chaplain gives the opening prayer amid the buzz of a nearby aircraft.
THE START. 9:21 A.M.
Soldiers grab bananas piled on a table and chow down while chugging Gatorade. The countdown begins. At the shout of “One,” the Soldiers bellow “Hooah!” The teams collectively snap into action, like firefighters racing to a truck at the sound of an alarm.
Organizers estimate the Challenge will last about six hours before the first team hits a million.
Staff Sergeant Corey Blankenship, a training NCO with the 1/149th Infantry, does 13 deadlifts in quick succession, with no apparent sweat. He and his 75 TC teammates are unassumingly off to an impressive start.
Captain Dayna Sanders, commander of the 2138th Forward Support Company, is on the Olympians team. She casually masters three pull-ups, legs dangling, ponytail swinging. She stops briefly and then pulls herself up for one more. It’s her most difficult exercise of the four categories, she says later.
The Over 40 team follows a different strategy. The members lift weights with a high number of reps. However, their bench press weight is 95 pounds, compared to the 135 pounds on the bench for 75 TC next to them.
Last year, a small group of five participants started off strong and took short breaks throughout the event. This year, the five teams are starting off strong and still pushing hard nearly an hour into it.
All the while, Sergeant Justin Browning, the medic assigned to monitor each Soldier, stands at the front of gym, carefully scanning for body language that signals someone may be overdoing it. If they start wobbling, he says he’ll check on them. He’s ready to pull any of them from the competition if they look like they’re in trouble.
THE SHIFT. 10:10 A.M.
The field is taking shape.
Despite having only four members, 75 TC is in command, with 154,000 pounds lifted so far. Because they’re one person down, the strategy is for two teammates to lift while two teammates rest, then switch.
In a close second is the 138 FiB, a group of young Soldiers whose strategy is to start with the heaviest weights. They’ve lifted about 118,000 pounds. However, within a few minutes, they drop to third place behind the Over 40 team.
Sergeant Stephane Salet, cannon crew member of A Battery, 2/138th Field Artillery, says his group had heard about the Challenge only three weeks ago and have been preparing since.
“All of us started eating a lot more to pack on weight like carbs and protein. We would all go to the gym and put in volume workouts, lifting 35,000 to 45,000 pounds in one hour.” Salet says. “Our strategy [was] to do 45,000 in each hour for five hours or less. We’re a little bit behind, but I feel good. We’re drained; we’re tired; a lot of us are sore. It’s coming down to heart much more than physical ability.”
As the morning progresses, the overall mood shifts, from humor to serious contemplation to dogged determination to exhaustion.
Much like battle buddies who keep an eye on each other’s health and well-being, the Challenge is about shouldering each other’s burdens, Morlu says, noting that the teams each have their own strategies to keep each other going. Some are doing sets of 10, some are doing sets of 20.
“We’re all trying to carry each other,” Morlu says.
THE PAIN. 11 A.M.
The teams are coming out of a short break where they met to discuss some of the life circumstances that could lead a Soldier to suicidal thoughts, and the warning signs for buddies to look out for.
As everyone starts lifting again, the exhaustion starts to become apparent. Their movements are less fluid, more jerky. And ironically, they’re smiling more—but not because they’re finding their task easy. They’re slap-happy, pushing through pain with the same optimism they bring on emergency missions and deployments.
Dooley, competing on 63 TAB, muses that he didn’t realize how much strain he would actually face during the Challenge. Since July 5, he has been hitting the gym five days a week. He was a full-time accounting student at the University of Kentucky in Lexington who trained for the Challenge on summer break at Fort Belvoir, VA. But even that workout regimen wasn’t enough.
“I thought I was ready, but once you get out here, you realize you can never really prepare,” he says. “We’re now at hour two-and-a-half, and almost all of us are pretty dire.”
THE FINISH. 12:48 P.M.
Throughout the Challenge, one team has consistently dominated. It has been largely silent, focused and unrelenting.
In 3 hours and 33 minutes, about half the time than was expected to complete the Challenge, 75 TC passes the million mark—1,093,041 pounds to be exact.
Blankenship, an Iraq War Veteran, says each winning teammate comes from individual regiments, and they didn’t even train together. Their strategy? “Go as hard as you can, nonstop. With one person gone, we had to pick up the slack where he was missing,” he says.
Like Morlu, Blankenship has been mindful of the number 22. The high rates of suicides don’t have to continue, he says. “You don’t have to be an expert, but at least be cognizant of the signs,” he says, adding that he recently picked up on those warning signs with a fellow Soldier, who voiced issues that signaled he was contemplating the worst.
“I started getting involved as much as I could. I felt like I had to get involved personally,” he says. “I decided, if I show him that I care, and he needs me, then he won’t go with this. It’s working out well for him now. He’s walking upstairs instead of down.”
Ultimately, Blankenship says, what will help Soldiers are their comrades serving to their left and right—each one looking out for the other. Everybody has different strengths, and “if we all use our strengths for the benefit of others, it makes us a strong, well-rounded, multifaceted team,” he says.
After 75 TC reaches a million, the 138 FiB and the Olympians teams continue to lift so they can also hit that number. When they get there, the Soldiers trickle out of the gym unobtrusively, much like the way in which they serve—without fanfare or expectation of accolades.
For Robinson, one of the takeaways is that the day was about coming together—to “push, pull and encourage one another.”
“The sum of our work today will far outweigh any one of our individual efforts,” he says. “We are a part of the greatest team in the world, and together, we can defeat Soldier and Veteran suicide.”
SHARE THE BURDEN
Consider this a challenge: Kentucky invites any and all states and territories to join in the event next year to raise more awareness about Soldier suicide.
If you’re interested in participating, email CPT David Shelley at David.W.Shelley.firstname.lastname@example.org.
THREE WAYS TO GET HELP
If you’re a service member in crisis or know a service member who is, confidential support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Use any of the options below to connect with a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area. Also, learn more about the warning signs at VeteransCrisisLine.net/signsofcrisis/default.aspx
Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
Online chat: VeteransCrisisLine.net/ChatTermsOfService.aspx (text: 838255)
Members: SSG Corey Blankenship; SPC Cody Andrews; 1LT Adam Disney; CPT Josh Bailey. Notable: Blankenship lifted 306,300 pounds on his own—the most of any competitor. Total weight lifted: 1,093,041 pounds.
Members: SSG Dallas Robinson; SPC Abraham Morlu; MSG Jay Taheny; MAJ John Harvey; CPT Dayna Sanders. Notable: Morlu (now a U.S. citizen), in addition to competing on the 2013–2014 U.S. men’s bobsled team, also competed for his home country, Liberia, in track and field in the 2000 and 2010 Olympics. Total weight lifted: 1,029,085 pounds.
The Over 40 team
Members: MAJ Eddie Simpson; MAJ Bryan Combs; MAJ Frank Mulder; MAJ Michael Woodson; COL Michael Abell. Notable: The team was proud of its experience. At one point, Abell could be overheard joking with everyone: “The Over 40 team has some Geritol and moonshine over here for anyone who needs it.” Total weight lifted: 799,415 pounds.
Members: PFC Corey Hunley; SGT Evan Calhoun; SPC Christopher Dooley; SGT Stephane Salet; PFC Cameron Clark. Notable: Four of the five team members served in the Horn of Africa in 2013 for nine months. “We’ve been through everything,” says Salet. “We hang out when we’re not in uniform, and then we snap back into military mode and accomplish the mission.” Total weight lifted: 1,030,264 pounds.
Members: CPT Robert Cooley; CDT Zachary Dooley; SSG Glenn Hartke; SSG Russell Moody; SSG Erin Baxter. Notable: The members come from the 63 TAB unit; three are from the 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. The overall strategy: lift in the same weight group so they wouldn’t waste effort. Total weight lifted: 633,900 pounds.
Total lifted by all teams: 4,585,705 pounds