There’s no way to sugarcoat the sobering reality behind the name of the veteran-based hockey program, the Skate for the 22 Foundation. For years, military veteran agencies have estimated that roughly 22 veterans take their lives each day. Although a 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs study puts that number at 20 suicides daily nationwide, the revised figure confirms a serious mental health crisis.
Researchers found that the risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher than civilian adults. For Burlington’s Robert “Bobby” Colliton, an 18-year veteran who served in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that was simply unacceptable.
“The idea of creating an organization to support veteran suicide prevention came to me through my own personal struggles,” said Colliton, 37, a Spokane, Wash., native. “My last [active] duty was in Tampa, Florida. I was away from my family, not happy with my work, and going through a very tough divorce. It felt like all I had was hockey. I was playing adult hockey, coaching youth hockey, working out, and living and breathing Tampa Bay Lightning hockey.
“The guys on my team became my ad hoc family,” he said. “I was just able to connect and build a bond that helped me focus on things other than what was happening in the rest of my life.”
After moving to Massachusetts in April 2015, Colliton found a hockey team to play for. He also met a like-minded veteran in Burlington’s Charlie Bobbish, a longtime Massachusetts Hockey volunteer who shared Colliton’s concerns for the well-being of military personnel. Working with other volunteers, they launched the Skate for the 22 Foundation in November 2015. The foundation became a nationally registered nonprofit organization the following February.
“The high veterans’ suicide rate is a national tragedy, and I wanted to try to do something constructive about it,” said Bobbish, 69, a Texas native and currently director of operations for the foundation. “I have many friends who did not return home from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. There’s nothing I can do for them, but I can honor their memory by supporting the foundation to the best of my ability.”
The program has a threefold mission statement: to bring the veteran back into a supportive team environment, using the competitive sport of hockey, at no cost to the veteran; to provide both suicide awareness and prevention training to help identify someone who is struggling, and offer support; and to provide financial assistance to families of veterans who do commit suicide.
The foundation sponsors learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs for veterans new to the sport, and skills clinics for players looking to improve, run by former pro players who volunteer. It also sponsors the New England Eagles, based in Greater Boston, and the Granite State Cannons, made up of New Hampshire and Maine veterans. Both participate in games and tournaments “against anybody we can get our hands on,” said Colliton, including police and fire departments and the Boston Blades women’s professional team. The program is open to any veteran or active member — including reservists — of the United States armed forces.
“We won’t, for example, turn away someone with a dishonorable discharge,” said Bobbish. “That veteran might be someone who benefits the most from participating with us.”
Players range from “a 23-year-old active duty Air Force cop to a 60-year-old retired lieutenant colonel,” said Colliton. “We have males and females, straight and gay, married and single. We have players that have only skated for a few months to players that played D-1 college hockey and even minor league pro hockey. We have 180-plus veteran athletes that live from Maine to Florida, and none are the same.”
William Tyree, a native of New Mexico, served as an infantryman with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the same company as Colliton. He said hockey is a particularly good fit to achieve the foundation’s goals.
“I don’t think any other sport generates the same camaraderie as hockey,” said Tyree, 33. “I’m definitely biased because I love the sport, but the amount of teamwork and constant action is great for people currently serving, transitioning, or completely out of the military.
“The team mentality is one of the hardest things to replicate from the military to civilian life,” he said. “The brotherhood and sisterhood just isn’t the same anywhere else.”
For Duxbury’s Patricia Grawzis, a goaltender who served in the Army as a military police officer (2004-07) and was deployed to Iraq, the locker-room support network is almost as important as the on-ice experience.
“I never feel like I need to hide or act differently when I’m around ‘the guys.’ We just all get each other,” said Grawzis, 32, who played for the Cape Cod Waves growing up. “In the ‘civilian world,’ I feel like I should hide my military oddities, or not say certain things because they won’t get it. Not with these guys
“This group is great because we all know that everyone is there for each other,” she said. “If we’re ever having a problem, there’s always someone to talk to.”For details on the foundation, visit skateforthe22.org . If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please allow at least a month’s advance notice.