Last year I participated in the Irreverent Warriors Silkies Hike in Virginia Beach. I was turned onto IW by a Navy friend that had participated in one in Tennessee a few months prior. I figured it would be a great way to get out of my normal rut of weekend events and maybe meet some new people. Then I went into geek mode and started researching what IW was and why the hikes were so important. Little did I know that it was more than just a social walk. It was an event that brings service members and veterans together to help bring awareness to the community about the mental health issues that so many of us have due to our time in service.
What started in July of 2015 as the 22 with 22 for the 22 by Donny O’Malley and Ryan Loya has now become the Silkies Hike. These two men wanted to bring awareness to the community about the epidemic of veteran suicide after both being touched by it. Both men lost friends to suicide and knew that something needed to be done because it wasn’t enough to just say there was a problem, but people needed to know about it. Irreverent Warriors was born out of that need to educate others and create a community where veterans felt safe coming together and admitting they were struggling. The mission of IW is simple.
To bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide.
And the vision is one I think all can get behind.
To be the force that unites the Veteran community and drives a healthy culture within its members. Through create engagements, events and strong Veteran-based support networks, we will be knows as the catalyst for improving the Veteran outlook. We WILL be the most effective Veteran community in the United States.
I’ll admit that when I saw pictures from previous hikes I wondered just how serious this group took itself. But then I remembered that I did take stand-up comedy classes with Armed Services Arts Partnership because the mission there is using humor to deal with military mental health too. So maybe there is something to this whole idea of humor healing people. After all, many of us in the military community have seen unspeakable things and it is only our dark sense of humor that got us through the worst moments. And as the founded of IW say, we warriors are connected by three things: Out shared experiences in the US military; our shared experiences as people who have dealt with pain, tragedy, and trauma; and our tendency to use humor to get through pain, tragedy and trauma.
After the hike I got to sit down with Sean Edwards, an active duty Command Master Chief in the US Coast Guard who is the Virginia Beach Hike Coordinator, and Mari Williams, a Navy Corpsman and the Mid-Atlantic District Coordinator for IW. Both are incredibly passionate about what they do with IW and I feel thankful that they wanted to share a bit more about IW with everyone.
What does the mission statement of IW mean to you?
Sean: I think most of us have been “touched” in some way by suicide, whether a family member, friend, or battle buddy, so anything I can do to help veterans get through another day is a righteous endeavor.
Mari: To me it means social events where veterans and Military can meet other likeminded people and know they are not alone. Having others who understand personal struggles or have experienced similar challenges brings hope and opens the door for healing.
How did you get involved with IW? Is there a personal connection to veteran loss that made you want to get involved?
Sean: One of my close friends (retired Marine) participated in the New York City hike and told me all about it. When I saw Fort Lauderdale was hosting a hike in 2019 I attended and was immediately hooked! That same day, I approached the IW CEO (Cindy) and said I would like to host the first ever hike in Key West later that year. I have had Shipmates attempt and/or commit suicide and have heard many stories from friends of similar instances.
Mari: I learned about IW September 2015 through a Facebook post. I started following the original poster and discovered a whole other side to the military and veteran community I never knew about. Being a Corpsman who’s always had an irreverent sense of humor, it was one of my coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress of working in inpatient care. When I found out about IW and irreverent sense of humors are not stifled but encouraged, I knew I found the missing piece I didn’t know I needed!
What makes each hike unique to you?
Sean: The location, hike coordination team, time of year (weather) and the personalities who show up. Every hike is a bit different, but all with the same goal: Prevent veteran suicide.
Mari: The hike team is the heart of the uniqueness. It’s easy to see the personalities of those who plan and execute the hikes. Along with the team comes location. Not one location is the same as another!
What has been the most memorable moment for you since becoming involved with IW?
Sean: For me, seeing the testimonials on the IW social media pages and realizing that so many veterans need these hikes in their lives. Most recently, after the U.S.’s pull-out from Afghanistan and the fall-out from that decision, I saw the anger, frustration, and resentment from so many veterans who spilled blood in Afghanistan. Our hikes are just one avenue folks can do to stay positive and make it one more day.
Mari: Meeting my husband! Last year I was part of IW’s first ever Silkies Across America. We had 5 hikes, Coast to coast planned on the same day. During our hike, Grunt Style did a live stream and hosted all 5 Hike coordinators. I couldn’t hear much of what was being said on the live stream; once it was my turn, when I finally heard my (now) husband say Virginia Beach, I spoke about my location/hike and said, “Gotta go, I have a schedule to keep. Bye!” And literally hung up on him in the middle of the live stream! My husband said that was the first time he’d be hung up on during a live stream!
What do you wish more people knew about IW?
Sean: I wish more people knew about our hikes all over the U.S. and the positive impact they have on veterans. We just want veterans and military to attend. You just never know how you walking and talking to another veteran may help them get over a rough patch in their life.
Mari: About the existence of the organization in general! I love being the one at registration checking people in and it makes me even more excited when I get to hand out more “1st time hiker” wrist bands then “seasoned hiker ones”.
Anything you want to make sure readers know about what IW is, what it does, and what it hopes to do in the future?
Sean: We primarily use the “Silkies” Hikes to get veterans together, but when we say “hike” it is important to understand these are NOT fitness events. We have all age groups, all fitness levels, and often have wounded warriors as well. All are welcome and we will accommodate! At the end of the day, we bring veterans together in a venue they are comfortable in. That is why we only allow military and veterans in the hike formation (non-military can volunteer though). I encourage people to check out www.irreverentwarriors.com for more information, to help, buy merchandise, or see the hike schedule for the year. Each city hike also has a Facebook group (ours is IW-Virginia Beach). IW was established in 2015 and is growing rapidly every year!
Mari: Our mission is at the heart of everything we do as Irreverent Warriors. The events created pick up where clinical can’t reach. Our social events remove the apprehension, typically associated with the clinical side and provide a vast network of support, while basking in our irreverent sense of humor, for all who attend our events! We remind everyone, it’s perfectly fine, not to be ok!!
Sound like something you want to be a part of? Check out the upcoming events (including the one I will be at in Virginia Beach!)