Capt. Justin Fitch, diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, devotes much of his time and energy raising money to combat veteran suicides. (David Kamm/Army)
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An active-duty Army officer stricken with terminal cancer is fighting for his life — and the lives of others. Capt. Justin Fitch said he wants to use his last days to reverse the epidemic of veteran suicide.
“Every single day that I have here on this earth is a gift, and I want to use it as well as possible,” said Fitch, who was speaking slowly in a phone interview with Army Times on July 31, one day after his latest round of chemotherapy.
“Life is difficult. Recovery is difficult, but I try not to curl up in a ball, I try to do what I can in the time I have left,” said Fitch, 32.
That means balancing time with friends and family, including his wife of nine years, his obligations to the Army, and his cancer fight.
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are spent in chemotherapy, and on Thursdays and Fridays, he is commander of a research and development company at the Army’s Natick Labs.
Fitch has had 41 chemotherapy treatments. Since he was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in May 2012, he has also had several surgeries, lost 55 pounds and lost much of his digestive system. He has been told by doctors that he has months to live.
A native of Hayward, Wisconsin, with more than nine years as a soldier, Fitch served as an infantry officer in Iraq and later as a personnel officer supporting special forces troops in Iraq.
Fitch uses his personal brushes earlier in his service with depression, combat stress and suicidal thoughts to fuel his work for the nonprofit Active Heroes and its ‘Carry the Fallen’ campaign.
Statistics are very personal to Fitch. An estimated 22 veterans each day commit suicide, which makes about 8,000 per year.
“It’s hard to understand what the cause is and the solutions, but I believe very strongly in the route I’m taking,” Fitch said.
Fitch has participated in a series of ruck marches to benefit Carry the Fallen, the first in November 2013, and he was ruck-marching 10 miles to work twice a month before his medical condition forced him to stop.
In all, his ruck march team, Team Minuteman, has raised $112,000, and he has raised about $60,000 personally to benefit Active Heroes. The money helps veterans fund home repairs and — specifically through Carry the Fallen — will help build a retreat for veterans and their families.
For $5 million, a 244-acre farm in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, will be transformed into the retreat. Fitch envisions a day when families will be able to enjoy its tranquility, with a petting zoo for children and an archery range.
1st Lt. Kristen Heavens, a 27-year-old Natick research technician, has marched twice to memorialize two loved ones who committed suicide years apart, a close family friend and her grandfather, a 20-year Navy veteran.
“Everybody does a great job supporting each other,” she said. “Everybody has a story, and everybody is there for a reason.”
Cancer may have ended Fitch’s days marching the entire way, but he plans to ride in the command-and-control vehicle, shouting encouragement. The next marches are on Sept. 6 and Nov. 8. Registration and donation information is available at carrythefallen.org.
“It’s difficult to walk these days, let alone throw on an 80-pound ruck and complete a marathon,” he said. “I have been trying to transition my involvement in this cause into more of a leadership and inspirational role.”
That transition spurred him to donate $10,000 of his own money to the cause — money that might have paid for an overseas family trip — in order to inspire others to give. “I approved this through my wife,” he said. “I’m not crazy.”
His goal now is to see the retreat in Kentucky finished before he dies.
“This is my final mission as a soldier, and even when I actually do get medically retired from the Army, I am going to push this mission until I can no longer physically do anything,” Fitch said.
“It cannot be successful without hope and growth and support. It’s an impossible task it seems like some days — 8,000 a year — but even if its one life that we save, all the effort’s worth it.”