Almost five months after her friend took her own life, US Navy Veteran Leslie Schroerlucke found herself with a new mission: raising awareness about suicide. Now 370 miles into the 2,650 mile trek through the Pacific Coast Trail, she sat down to talk with me via cellphone during a rare moment of cellular service near Rightwood, California.
Climb for Candyce had originally started out as a journey of self discovery for Schroerlucke (aka Lucky). 6 years in the US Navy had left her with a failed marriage, lingering bouts with depression, and substance abuse issues she attributes to an all too common occurrence for women in uniform; being the victim of sexual harassment.
“I was lost,” she said. “I wanted to get to the root… I wanted to deal with my depression. That’s when I found out about the PCT.”
The Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) is an arduous, beautiful system of hiking passages that winds through dry desert, the high Sierra mountains, lush forests, and some of the most breathtaking views in the entire country. It was most recently made famous in the 2014 movie starring Reese Witherspoon titled WILD. The summary for which reads as almost a pond’s reflection to Lucky’s own past.
While making the final preparations for her journey, Lucky decided to visit her friend and fellow veteran Candyce Staub, a 25 year old mother of one engaged to soon be married. Staub, who’d served with Lucky onboard the USS Comstock, had donated to her former shipmate to buy the gear she’d need to make the perilous trip from the border of Mexico to Canada. Tragically, however, shortly after arriving back at her home in California, Lucky found out that Staub had taken her own life.
Lucky, a former damage control petty officer/firefighter during her time in active duty, was devastated. “We had no idea. She never seemed like she was contemplating suicide.”
This is not an uncommon trend, experts warn. “Many people who commit suicide do so without letting on they are thinking about it or planning it,” says Dr. Michael Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Of the roughly 100 or more Americans that commit suicide every day, about 20 percent are veterans. This despite the fact that service members make up only 9 percent of the entire population. Even more alarmingly, rates are on the raise, especially among female veterans. According to a recent NPR article, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that the suicide rate for female veterans is 2-5 times higher than for their civilian counterparts.
Upon hearing the news, Lucky, who’s no stranger to adversity (despite the nickname) immediately sprang into action. “I called and organized a memorial to raise money to get Matt (Staub’s fiancé) a flight home,” she said. “I was worried because I knew that their family would want to see him and Benjamin (Staub’s 3 year old son). I figured if I could just raise enough money for a flight, it would be a big help for them.”
And help she did. Lucky, who had decided to put off her trip to the PCT, raised enough money to be able to send the father and young song back to Ohio. However when she tried to set up the transfer of funds, Staub’s fiancé had a different idea. “He told me keep it,” Lucky said. “Candyce wanted you to go on your hike. She donated to you… she would have wanted this for you,” he told her.
“I just broke down and cried,” Lucky said. “She had always helped me so much, been such a friend, and even now, she was finding a way to help me again.”
That’s when Lucky realized her journey was bigger than herself. That’s when she started Climbing for Candyce. Lucky decided to make 200 bracelets to give to people she’d meet along the trail. “I share Candyce’s story, and tell them why I am here,” she tells me, smiling through the phone. “Then, I ask them to find a beautiful spot, a favorite spot during their hike, and take a picture wearing the bracelet, and share her story to social media.”
It’s a remarkably elegant idea; a way to breach the topic of suicide and mental health awareness, to break the ice, and get people having a difficult conversation that is so often avoided in this country, especially when it comes to veterans.
“Then,” she adds, “I ask whoever I give a bracelet to try and pass it along to someone that they meet along the trail, and have them do the same.”
The strategy is working. She tells me she has people stop her and ask if she’s the one, the one who’s climbing for Candyce. “The response has been overwhelming,” she exclaims. “It’s like me and Candyce are famous.” So far, Lucky estimates that about 1,000 people have reached out via social media and other outlets. She’s even been contracted to do a radio interview.
It’s helping restore my faith in humanity,” she tells me smiling as one of her Trail Angels, Dave, brings her a much needed piece of pie. This is one of the few times she’s gotten a hot shower and a warm meal during her 6 weeks out on the Trail.
“People’s kindness is what keeps me going. I have to be bigger than my burden. I try to remember that. It’s been hard. Not that I expected it to be gravy. But it’s changing my life.”
Follow Lucky’s travels on instagram @climbforcandyce