NORMAL — Shouldering American flags and bags stuffed with canned food, a troop of veterans and active-duty military marched through Normal on Saturday.
Will Fouts, an Army veteran and student at Heartland Community College, helped organize the first Heartland Veterans Center Ruck March food drive for Midwest Food Bank in Normal.
“A lot of groups focus on veterans helping veterans, but we wanted to do something a little different that would benefit the community,” said Fouts of Normal.
More than 25 veterans, active-duty personnel and military friends and family attended the march.
But instead of driving the donations to the facility, participants loaded the goods into backpacks and carried the load as a group more than 3 miles from Heartland to the food bank.
Then, after a quick breather at the warehouse, the crowd turned around and marched back to Heartland.
“We want to show that we’re still active, even if we’re no longer serving,” said Fouts, who served in Germany and Texas for five years.
While benefiting the food bank, Fouts said he also hoped the event will raise awareness about services offered through Heartland’s Student Veterans Center.
“We have around 250 vets on campus right now but at the veterans center we have about 30 people that actively come in. We’d like to get that number up,” he said.
Jeanette Kavanaugh, advisor at the veterans center, joined the march as a Marine veteran.
“This will show the community that the veterans who come back aren’t just numbers of people who need help. They are highly engaged in the community," she said. "I see that with this group and this generation of veterans in particular. Once they are done with their service to their country, they still want to serve their communities in any way they can."
Kavanaugh said student veterans, family of military personnel and community veterans are invited to visit Heartland’s Student Veterans Center.
“It’s an excellent place to come in and get information. It doesn’t matter the generation or service, we all walk into the vet center here and we’re instantly comfortable with each other,” she said.
The group gathered around a large flag pole on Heartland's campus before marching east on Raab Road. As soon as they started the trek, several passing cars honked and drivers waved in appreciation.
Army soldier Michael Lassiter toted a backpack bulging with cans, which he estimated weighed 45 pounds.
“I’m looking forward to having fun and walking with lots of great people. It’s important to put the needs of others before ourselves. It seems like that’s a lost art,” said Lassiter of Normal.
While on leave from his Marine base in Hawaii, Zach McElroy came home to Bloomington to join the cause with his childhood friend.
“I’ve known Willy since grade school. It’s for an awesome cause and it represents the veterans center,” said McElroy. “It’s good to give back.”