Sgt. Travis Birr expects spectators to be initially shocked when they see him running in Grandma's Marathon.
Then, the Duluth resident hopes, they'll wonder why he's running 26.2 miles wearing 25 pounds of military body armor.
Birr, a combat medic with Duluth-based U.S. Army Reserve 477th Medical Company, will be running the marathon for the nonprofit Operation: 23 to Zero to raise awareness about suicide among veterans and active-duty service members, and to make it known that help is available.
The number 23 comes from a 2012 Department of Veteran Affairs study estimating that 22 veterans and one service member die by suicide every day, explained Birr, who runs the nonprofit's Minnesota North chapter. Birr will run in memory of veterans who have taken their own lives; their names will be listed on his back during the race.
Veterans who die by suicide and not in combat are easily forgotten, which is compounded by a stigma that keeps people from talking about it, Birr said.
"It's important that the civilian world really understands what is going on. I meet people every day that had no idea. Granted, more people are becoming aware of the number, but I still meet people who say 'I had no idea' and occasionally you get someone who says, 'What can I do?' I hope that happens this weekend. I truly do," said Birr, 38, who has served in the Reserves for five years.
Birr won't be the only runner wearing body armor during Grandma's Marathon. Running beside him will be Master Sgt. Brian Tuve, 35, a U.S. Army recruiter in the Twin Cities who has served for 17 years. The duo plans to post live videos on their Running for the Remembered Facebook page on Saturday so people can follow their race. They're hoping to finish the marathon between 4½ and five hours.
Finding time to train was hard between his military service, volunteering with Operation: 23 to Zero and his job as an EMT with Gold Cross Ambulance, Birr said, and like most runners, he has a feeling that he could have done more training. However, they both push themselves physically in the military and in the civilian world, he said.
Birr said he's going to be thinking throughout the race about the veterans and service members he knew who have killed themselves.
"Obviously, there's going to be a huge sense of completion," Birr said. "It will be an emotional ending for sure. ... There's going to be a lot of reflecting afterwards. I hope it goes well. There's still the potential for injury."
Birr has worn the body armor while running 5K and 10K races, but this will be the first time he'll wear it while completing a marathon. It will be his first Grandma's Marathon, although he has previously completed a marathon and two ultramarathons. He trained for Grandma's with the gear on at times.
"It's going to hurt. The amount of pain that I'm going to be going through is only minimal compared to what our at-risk veterans go through on a daily basis," Birr said.
Birr became aware of veteran suicide in 2013. It was the suicide of someone he knew that started his mission to help, but since then, he has known a few others who have taken their own lives. There are a lot of different factors for why veterans and service members take their own lives and it's not necessarily linked to combat experiences, Birr said. The transition from military service to civilian life can also factor into it.
Birr said he hopes that seeing the body armor during the marathon will spur people to learn about Operation: 23 to Zero or tell a veteran or servicemember they know about the nonprofit.
"I truly believe that the civilian community doesn't realize how important they are to this equation in terms of helping our veterans," he said.
Operation: 23 to Zero began in 2013 with the mission of preventing suicide and creating a support network. It includes raising awareness, providing education to military units and civilian organizations, connecting veterans and service members to resources and intervening with veterans considering suicide. It's based in Minnesota, but also has support networks in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
The nonprofit works with veterans of all ages. Birr explained that if a veteran needs to talk, he'll try to find someone who served in the same branch or around the same time as the veteran. For female veterans, a service-related sexual assault may be a factor and he'll connect the victim with another female veteran with whom to talk and with resources to address the assault.
People can also volunteer to help with Operation: 23 to Zero's events or be a resource to help veterans.
The organization usually hosts fun events that get people together, such as barbecues or ruck marches. Running Grandma's Marathon will be a different way for them to raise awareness about veteran suicide, Birr said.
"There's going to be a lot of runners that I will see this weekend who didn't know. They might be able to tell a family member. I don't know, but I hope it happens, I truly do. If not, I hope they can just appreciate the names on my back," he said.