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Hometown Hero: Aaron Hunnel turns struggles into strides

Hometown Heroes

Appleton, Wis. (WFRV)- In 2004, Wisconsin Army National Guard vet Aaron Hunnel joined the U.S. Army as a paralegal.

“I just felt like I was at a tough spot in my life where I needed to make a decision, right?,” Hunnel recalled. “I could keep working this job that I don’t really care for, or I could try to do something with myself and make a life for myself that I’m proud of.”

It led him down a path that became a passion.

“I found something that I was really passionate about and got to help commanders and provide legal assistance with powers of attorney, and also went on a couple of deployments as a paralegal. I was able to help people, which I really like to do,” Hunnel said.

After two deployments to Iraq, it was when Hunnel entered the veteran world that he realized he was the one who needed help.

“When you’re deployed, there’s a sense of purpose and connection that you get, you know? You put on that uniform and you know that you’ve got each other’s backs, there’s a lot of teamwork,” said Hunnel. “The absense of purpose and connection can just throw you into a tailspin and to a very dark place that can be very hard to get back from,” he said.

Hunnel was in that dark place for some time between deployments, finding himself reliant on alcohol to numb his struggles.

Until he discovered a new outlet; Exercise.

Hunnel ran the satellite Boston Marathon while in Iraq in 2010.

He was invited by the Boston Athletic Association the following year to speak about his experience running in the military.

“I started talking about running being a passion, and it made me think about at the Boston Marathon, people coming from all over the world for this one race,” Hunnel recalled. “The start line is the same, the finish line is the same, but the paths that people have come from and the path that they’re taking mentally is all different- but it’s all the same. And so I thought, ‘This is a sense of community.’ It’s as close as I can get to being in the service,” he said.

Hunnel said he used fitness as a tool to pull himself out of some of his darkest times after the service. He decided to use that same tool in the form of biking as a way to help other veterans. That’s how the Ride 2 Stop Suicide came to be.

“I started thinking to myself, am I doing what I could be doing to help prevent suicide in the veteran community? And so we came up with this idea called The Ride to Stop Suicide. And so our goal is to donate 100 bikes to military bikes across the country on Veteran’s day 2021,” said Hunnel.

To do that- Hunnel and his team will bike across the country over the course of 22 days starting on September 11th.

For Hunnel, the meaning is greater than just a bike ride.

“Life is like a bike, you know? You have to push on the pedals to move yourself forward and steer in the direction you want to go and make people part of the process,” said Hunnel.

“If there aren’t people, none of those things matter. It’s the people that create value and meaning for us in life, so we need to find ways to come together as teams and help each other help each other so we can have a meaningful life,” he said.

The Ride 2 Stop Suicide will begin in Oceanside, California and end in Annapolis, Maryland.

Have someone you’d like to nominate for Hometown Hero? Let us know below!

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