Paul Gabby was having a really bad day.
It was the fourth day in the six-day, 120-mile ultramarathon through parts of the Rocky Mountains earlier this month — Gabby’s first ultramarathon. He was guzzling water trying to get rid of headaches brought on by the altitude and exhaustion. He just couldn’t get rid of them. It was awful, and he almost quit.
But then he found a couple from Florida that were running around his pace. As a solo runner taking part in what was originally a team race, Gabby hoped some companionship could help get him through it.
“I was like, ‘Look, can I run with you? I'm not going to finish if I try to do this alone,’” Gabby recalled. “And they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s all about!’ So I ended up running with them for pretty much the entire day. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have finished. And that kind of brought back the whole reason I was out there.”
Gabby, an undergraduate nursing student in Drexel University’s College of Nursing & Health Professions, decided to do the TransRockies Run in Colorado in order to raise money and bring awareness to veterans’ mental health issues through the non-profit Stop Soldier Suicide. As an active-duty member of the military having served in the Navy for nearly 12 years, Gabby knew that these issues — and the ways they are exacerbated by isolations and stigma — have hit close to home.
When Gabby was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, a friend and co-worker who had recently been discharged from the military attempted suicide, but thankfully survived.
“He was dealing with some stressors that no one really knew about. He wasn't articulating anything,” Gabby said. “Once the incident happened, it really shocked me. How did nobody know this is going on? There were no signs, and you just couldn’t tell. It just left you with a blank face after you heard the news. Like, how? I’m still at a loss for words to explain it.”
Through the race and the fundraiser, Gabby wanted to call attention to this trend among veterans being less likely to raise the red flag when they’re struggling.
“There’s still this kind of tough guy stigma in the military where you’re afraid to ask for help, or it could be, ‘I want to ask for help, but if I do, I might put my career in jeopardy,’” Gabby said. “So, I wanted to raise awareness to say … it's not acceptable. We've got to make it OK to ask for help. It's a pretty simple narrative: something's going on, ask for help, and you shouldn’t be punished for it.”
This goal pushed Gabby through runs at 12,500-foot elevation, some of the worst weather in the TransRockies Run’s history and sleepless nights in the race’s camp, called “Chillville,” due to fellow runners’ snoring. He would run for three to five-and-a-half hours — or over 24 miles — a day. It was harder than he thought, but Gabby says he learned a lot through the experience.
“I knew I needed a race that was going to be catchy, like catch people’s attention,” he said. “If I did the local 5K, not many people would be too interested.”
Gabby paid 100 percent of the cost of the race himself so that all of the profits raised would go directly to Stop Soldier Suicide. His goal is to raise $2,200 due to the 22% higher risk veterans have for suicide than their peers. As of now, Gabby’s Facebook fundraiser still needs additional donations to reach this goal by Aug. 31.
Regardless of the final results, Gabby was happy to have completed this undertaking in time for his graduation from Drexel and his commissioning ceremony to become a Naval officer early next month. He added that he has enjoyed being a part of the tight-knit veterans community at Drexel, which is fortified by such aspects as the Veterans Task Force and the Yellow Ribbon Program.
“I don’t think many other schools put as much effort into their veterans as Drexel does,” he said. “The stress of going to school, like it's not easy in the first place. Compounded with veterans’ prior experiences, I think puts us at a higher risk. … I think it's great that there's that connection here at Drexel where everyone is close, building those relationships.”
Visit Gabby’s Facebook fundraising page to provide a donation by Aug. 31, or find more information about Stop Soldier Suicide by clicking here.