Firefighter walk

Firefighters from Florida, Tennessee, Burlington and northern Kentucky walked along U.S. 25 in Georgetown on their way to Lexington Wednesday to raise awareness about firefighter cancer, post traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

There were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides in 2017, according to Ruderman Family Foundation.  

In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty, the foundation reports.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as five times higher than the civilian population leading to increased suicide rates, Ruderman Family Foundation White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders said.

Cancer causes 70 percent of career firefighter deaths in 2016 alone, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

Orange County retired firefighter Tom “Bull” Hill led a “My Brother’s Burden Walk”  through Georgetown Wednesday to bring awareness to firefighter cancer, PTSD and suicide.

Firefighters walked down U.S. 25 escorted by a Scott County Sheriff’s Office vehicle. There were flags attached to the bed of pickup trucks.

The six-day 100 mile walk began Aug. 19 at Burlington Fire Protection District  and continued to Walton Station 2 to Williamstown Fire Department Aug. 20, Corinth Fire Department Aug. 21, Scott County Fire Department Aug. 22, Lexington Station 9 Aug. 23 and Lexington Fire Headquarters Aug. 24.

Two firefighters from Orange County Fire Department who Hill previously worked with and had cancer encouraged Hill to start a walk.

“One firefighter asked me a day before he passed away to do the walk and the other asked me four days before he died,” Hill said.

The firefighters, Stephen Vansradenswaay died in September 2017 from cancer and John Perez died November 2017 from auto immune disease.

“Cancer is the leading cause of firefighter deaths, with heart disease being second and number three being suicide,” Hill said.

When a firefighter dies of cancer his family is left with no benefits and Hill said these families need benefits.

“When people see us walking, I hope they realize that firefighters in Kentucky have one of the highest suicide rates and they need help that is not being offered to them,” Hill said.

He previously walked in March 2018 from the Florida Keys to the state capital in Tallahassee to help bring awareness to these issues.

The Kentucky walk is the second time in Hill’s pursuit to walk all 50 states to raise awareness.

Hill was joined by firefighters from Corinth, Covington, Burlington, Tennessee, and Scott County Fire Department.

The walkers carried backpacks with name badges of firefighters around the U.S. who have died from cancer, PTSD and suicide. There also were small vials of human ashes of fire personnel and law enforcement that were carried in the packs.

The Kentucky Walk for “My Brother’s Burden” is coordinated through Noell Saunders, Burlington, Kentucky. from Firefighter’s Extinguishing Cancer Foundation. Saunders’ late husband, Jeremy, passed away in 2017 from cancer. He was a career firefighter with Orlando International Airport Fire and Rescue in Orlando, Florida, and a former volunteer firefighter with Burlington Fire Protection District in Burlington.

“We walk all day and stay the night in fire houses. PTSD, cancer and suicide is taking our firefighters and we are leading the nation right now in northern Kentucky, in suicides of first responders,” Saunders said.

“They are all here to honor their brothers and sisters in fire hood.”

Mick Bode, retired Covington firefighter, participated in the walk carrying a pack with patches of names of firefighters who have died from cancer, PTSD and suicide.

“We want to get the attention of legislatures to get more funding for cancer legislation,” Bode said.

Jennifer Peryam can be reached at jperyam@news-graphic.com.

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