GRANITE FALLS — The kids have their own reasons to run.
For Emma Graves, 12, it’s a Navy veteran who lived with her family for eight years.
For Galen Kelly, 14, it’s a father figure who served in the Navy, and an uncle who was in the Army, and great-grandfathers who fought in World War II.
For Josh Bagocki, 13, it’s almost everyone in his extended family: aunts, uncles, grandparents.
This summer the kids learned the bleak statistic that an average of 22 veterans kill themselves each day, according to one U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study.
So they decided to run with American flags, as their way of telling people about a mostly silent crisis. They call themselves Unit 22. On a recent afternoon in tiny downtown Granite Falls, 10 kids marched out of Omega Pizza waving flags. They split into groups, one for joggers and one for walkers.
Since summer the kids have become a twice-a-week sight in town, on Fridays and Sundays. Passing cars honk. Sometimes drivers or gardeners stop to chat. The goal is to bring awareness to the invisible wounds veterans carry home, as well as to show vets that they are grateful for their sacrifices.
Choosing to run for that particular cause was a group decision by the kids: Bagocki; Graves; Kelly; Vanessa Belgiornio, 12; two Dormier siblings; three Kaburagi siblings; and Mariah Strong, 12.
“It wasn’t really a certain person,” said Owen Dormier, 14. “We all just combined our brain mass.”
All of the kids know someone in the armed forces.
One of Bagocki’s relatives was a high-ranking officer in the Gulf War, who struggled with severe post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt. Years ago his children interrupted a suicide attempt, said Josh’s mother, Kat Bagocki. Later they found he’d filled a trunk with letters to families of fallen soldiers in his unit: “Mrs. Jones, I’m so sorry I killed your son … ”
Since then that relative has gotten help from Veterans Affairs. It took time for him to accept he had PTSD.
“A lot of these veterans have a hard time thinking: ‘I came back, but my friends didn’t. Why me?’” Kat Bagocki said.
An updated study in 2019 showed the number of veteran suicides dropped to fewer than 17 per day. The symbol of the number 22 has stuck around, however, as a rallying cry for groups working to reduce it to zero. Veterans account for about 13.5% of suicides among adults. About 7% of the adult population has served in the military, according to the Pew Research Center. Roughly two-thirds of veterans who die by suicide are in their 50s or older.
The kids circled into the parking lot of GenCare, a senior center where 18 elderly veterans live. Often they pause their run to talk with the residents.
One is retired Marine Sgt. Freeman “Pete” Nickel, 87, who wears a patch over a wounded left eye and a pair of Purple Hearts on a chain around his neck. He earned the medal three times in the Korean War. His daughter holds onto the third heart, he said.
In July 1953, a bullet cut through Nickel’s knee at the Battle of Boulder City. Shrapnel also hit his stomach, cutting off his intestine inches from the appendix.
“So when they put it back together again, I had no appendix,” he said. “They did a good job, I think, of trying to piece me back together. I’m still proud to be an American. That don’t go away.”
He brought out a black-and-white photo of the battle, with hundreds of twisted corpses on the ground.
“If that doesn’t give you nightmares, nothing will,” he said.
Last year the South Korean consulate awarded an Ambassador of Peace Medal to Nickel. He shares his war stories with the kids, and the kids listen.
“It does something to me when I see the American flag like that, and it does to other people, too,” Nickel said. “A lot of times I look at my watch and realize it’s just about time for the flag people. So I walk out to the edge and see them, because it means something to me.”
Charles Crouch, 94, served as a surveyor in the 698th Field Artillery Battalion in World War II. He landed in Germany just as the war was ending.
“So I never heard them fire a shot,” he said.
Don Wilson, 74, was drafted into the Vietnam War. He served as a combat medic on helicopters. He lives with those memories.
“I do tell the kids, ‘What you see on TV is not true,’” Wilson said. “When a bullet hits you, it’s a lot different than what you see on TV.”
In the near future the kids hope to do more than raise awareness. With the help of about five parents, they plan to start a nonprofit to raise money to bury indigent veterans and related causes. They’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to learn about military history. Last month they attended a funeral in King County for a veteran who had no family to claim him.
There are groups of grownups who do similar work.
“These are kids wanting to do it, which I think is really remarkable,” said Galen’s mom, Amy Kelly, who has done her share of coordinating for the group.
For five years, Kelly has investigated deaths for the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. About once a year, she said, she’s assigned a case where a veteran has taken his or her own life. The most recent case was in October. She asked that man’s wife if she’d be open to support from Unit 22.
After a half-hour of jogging on a sunny autumn day, the kids regrouped at a long table in the back of the pizza restaurant to write messages on a sympathy card.
“Even if it’s just a letter,” Owen Dormier said, “it tells them that we actually care about them.”
Correction: An earlier version misstated Josh Bagocki’s name and Amy Kelly’s name.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.