Not every military veteran who’s reentered civilian life or active-duty soldier who’s deployed has post-traumatic stress. Likewise, not every veteran with PTS “suffers” from its effects, having found ways not just to cope but to fight and overcome.
There are those souls, however, whose fire is being replaced by a thousand-yard stare. Those who feel utterly alone, who often become addicts or abuse alcohol, who are unable to ask for help, and who are turning to suicide. Six Feet Above, a newly formed veteran-advocacy movement out of Southern California, is spearheading a mission to stoke that fire back to life through skateboarding.
Riley Scott Whitcomb, lifelong skateboarder and former Light Armored Reconnaissance in the Marines, remembers the point at which he decided that staying silent was no longer an option.
“I was reading all these ‘rest in peace’ posts on social media. There were a lot of people I knew, a lot of people my friends knew. The posts were daily, sometimes almost hourly.
“One was like, ‘Till we meet again. When I’m 6 feet under, we’ll see you again,’ or whatever. Why do we have that mentality where we gotta wait ’til someone’s dead in order to care that this is a problem? Why is this not being discussed?”
Whitcomb connected with Benjie Manibog, former Marine Raider and owner of Thrash-N-Raid skateboard and apparel company, and Six Feet Above was born.
Whitcomb is the group’s CEO, and Manibog is the COO. They’re currently getting their feet under them through their Instagram presence, but they have ambitious outreach plans to provide access and build community in the works.
They plan to give lessons to beginners and hope to set up a skate shop on-base (Camp Pendleton, to start with) as a sort of forward operation to link up with active-duty members. For those who’ve never been on a skateboard and want to try to ride, they’ll have boards on standby, and they’re shooting to start hosting events and retreats over the summer.
“We’re basically the quick-reaction force that’s going to help get them through,” Manibog said, boiling down the core of their mission. “So they know that they can count on other veterans, they can count on each other, and to not be afraid to speak up.”
The grim statistics speak to the work ahead of them.
According to the DoD 2019 Annual Suicide Report, one soldier currently serving with any active or reserve United States military branch commits suicide each day — a number that’s rising every year.
In addition, there are roughly 18 veteran suicides every day, according to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, which is about 14% of the total number of suicides per day among the non-veteran population.
For the two men, paying attention to soldiers’ mental health before it’s an issue is important, so that it’s not about medication and then fighting addiction as well, having to triage after things are almost too far gone.
Manibog believes that skateboarding is the perfect medium for outreach.
“There are so many things about the skate community that are similar to the military community,” Manibog said. “One of them is the camaraderie and the brotherhood and sisterhood you have with your fellow skaters. People looking out for one another and lifting each other up.”
Manibog also has an eye on the logistics and partnerships needed to give their efforts traction.
“The goal is to have a medical professional and mental health personnel on staff to be able to address any issues that come up during retreats,” he said. “Likewise, having experienced skaters that can guide small groups through skating sessions of all levels. Partnerships with other organizations in the area, to include resources on the bases, will be essential in making this project successful.”
With the number of suicides among active-duty personnel rising, Whitcomb knows that, while their focus on supporting veterans is the same, their approach is different from that of other veterans’ outreach organizations.
“The whole thing behind Six Feet Above and #KillTheTrend is let’s stop that trend right now, make mental wealth a priority so that the guys can be fit for the fight.”
#KillTheTrend is the group’s social media call to action, meant to raise suicide awareness in the active-duty and veteran communities. It’s also featured in different poster designs on the group’s Instagram feed.
“We’re gonna be the ones that kick the door down,” Whitcomb said. “Coming up with solutions and reaching out so we can start nipping it in the bud while these guys are still on active duty instead of after they come out and are struggling to stay above water.”
Whitcomb said one solution they’ve been developing involves working with the Department of Defense on a more comprehensive and proactive transition program for newly separated service members.
“These guys don’t need all the medications that get thrown at them,” Whitcomb said. “They get hooked, and then that’s usually a downward spiral. Instead, ensure they get the proper scans and checkups, and then connect them with organizations like ours that would welcome and help them through that transition from a super fast-paced, active life into the veteran community.”
Other veteran-owned skateboarding and skateboard-related companies are stepping up to support Six Feet Above and the #KillTheTrend movement, companies such as Tragic Skateboard Co., Ranger Cortes, Raid SB, Amphibious Misfits, and Thrash-N-Raid, of course.
Manibog knows changing the general perception of veterans is part of the path forward. But he also understands that proactive support and making sure the veteran doesn’t buy into that perception is the bigger step.
“There are people that see veterans and automatically think, well, he’s probably got PTS. He’s probably messed up. I don’t know if we want to hire this person. They might be more of a risk and a liability than an asset,” Manibog said. “We want our veterans to know that they can rise above their barriers. Whatever they’re dealing with, whether it’s big or small, they can overcome them. And they’re not alone in that fight either.”