Mission 22: Long Islanders Raise Awareness About Veteran Suicide, One Pushup At A Time

Mission 22
Long Islander Stefan Hespeler has been doing 22 pushups for the past year as part of nonprofit Mission 22’s ’22-Pushup Challenge’ to raise awareness about veteran suicide. (Photos: Stefan Hespeler’s Instagram)

Martin Wicklow commands a strong presence in faded jeans, a black t-shirt, backwards baseball cap, and arms and knuckles decorated with intricate tattoos. But it’s his deep voice and eyes that tell stories of a hell most of us will be fortunate enough never to experience which hold the room at strict attention.

The former soldier described what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) feels like to a roomful of friends, family members, and supporters of Mission 22—a nonprofit whose goal is “to raise awareness, enlist support, and end veteran suicide in America”—at the Lindenhurst Youth Center on Jan. 27.

Wicklow was one of several speakers at the event, which was organized by former Lindenhurst resident and frequent youth center attendee Stefan Hespeler to mark his 300th consecutive day doing 22 pushups to spread word about Mission 22 and its important work. Although Hespeler, 37, is not a veteran, his twin brother is, and so he felt a calling to get involved after being challenged to do 22 pushups by a Facebook friend. He decided to take it further, and committed to doing pushups every day for an entire year. In doing so, became involved with Mission 22, Wicklow, and US Marines veteran Patrick Moley.

“We don’t get to put that stuff in our duffel bags and leave that there,” Wicklow said of the trauma that comes with losing fellow soldiers and the constant risk of serious injury. “It comes home with us.”

The former US Army National Guardsman was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2009, when he was hit by a training round and hospitalized. He compared the experience of PTSD to a scene from a horror movie replaying in your head when you try to go to sleep.

“You can’t turn it off,” he told the crowd, which also included Suffolk County Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst).

Wicklow hopes Mission 22 can spread awareness of what veterans like him are going through, and also help eradicate the stigma attached to PTSD and suicide.

Similar to the “Ice Bucket Challenge”—the viral philanthropic social media experiment to raise awareness and funding to benefit the ALS Association, a nonprofit dedicated to combatting the progressive, neurodegenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease—the “22-Pushup Challenge” strives to highlight PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and veteran suicide. Supporters who can’t make donations are asked to simply spend their social media capital getting the word out. There’s also a hashtag associated with the cause: #Mission22.

The challenge is straightforward: Do 22 pushups for 22 days in honor of the grim-and-under-reported statistic that 22 American veterans commit suicide each day. Since the group’s inception, that number has dropped to 20+—still, a remarkably high death toll that calls out for more attention.

By co-opting the selfie cultural phenomena that has made Instagram stars out of fitness enthusiasts, the 22 Pushup Challenge hopes to bring much-needed attention to the heavy emotional weights so many vets carry around with them, a burden some try to hide.

“Our veterans give so much for their country,” Hespeler told the Press. “It’s through their struggles and sacrifice that allow us to have the freedom and liberty that we get to enjoy.”

The Brightwaters resident keeps his Facebook and Instagram profiles fresh with new pushup posts each day, sometimes employing friends and relatives (and often, his dog Cooper), innovative places (his roof, while stringing Christmas lights), and different techniques. Hespeler’s posts always include the Mission 22 statement that he encourage followers to share:

“It’s more than just pushups. It’s a mission to bringing attention to those who need our help.”

Hespeler’s 22-Pushup Challenge to his friend Patrick Moley got him involved with Mission 22, where he now speaks on behalf of veterans, too. Having been deployed to Afghanistan twice, Moley has lost close friends he’d served with, both to battle abroad and suicide at home.

Although Moley does not suffer from PTSD, he says those losses “take their toll,” adding that he sometimes second-guesses himself about whether he could have done something to perhaps prevent those deaths.

“A lot of veterans are afraid to ask for help,” he said at the youth center. “I don’t know if it’s pride, or what. They want to be able to take care of others. They want to be able to take care of themselves. But it’s hard to ask for help. You help others. You don’t expect things for yourself.”

Suffolk County Legis. McCaffrey was impressed with the Mission 22 event and its goals. His son, an NYPD officer, recently volunteered for the National Guard, telling his father he wanted to serve his country.

“The things that they see over there are things that you shouldn’t see,” McCaffrey told the Press. “And it stays with you. We need to talk about it. Let’s create the awareness and say, ‘You served your country, and you have to work through things, and it’s okay.’”

Kathy Skopek has been the director of the Lindenhurst Youth Center for 30 years. She’s known Hespeler since his childhood. He used to visit the center almost every other day until the tenth grade. Watching Hespeler speak with the legislator during the Jan. 27 event, she said she was overcome with an almost maternal pride.

“He wasn’t in the military, and he’s taking this all on himself to do it for a whole year,” she said. “This is his 300th day, and [he’s] talking about the same thing, trying to bring about awareness, and not everyone wants to hear it, to hear bad news. I’m so proud of him.”

“Raising awareness for our veterans’ plight is the least that I can do,” Hespeler said. “I’m eternally grateful for them and proud to be part of this movement.”

The event concluded with an acknowledgement of soldiers lost, a vow to do whatever they could to help veterans who survive, and of course, more pushups.

Crisis support for Veterans and their families is available 24/7/365 at veteranscrisisline.net and via phone at 800-273-8255, “Option 1.” Those in need can also text 838255.

To learn more about the Mission 22 and the “22-Pushup Challenge,” visit mission22.com.

Follow Stefan Hespeler on Instagram to watch him complete his year-long pushup challenge at instagramcn.com/stfnhsplr