Palo Alto, CA Local 1319 fire fighter John Preston started the “22 and You” hike to help fire fighters and emergency medical workers struggling with mental health.
“We’ve seen a lot of our friends and people close to us dealing with the effects of the job, and as a veteran, the number 22 is significant because we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide,” he said.
After losing his older brother, Michael, who served as a fellow Marine and police officer, to suicide, Preston decided to turn his pain into action.
“When I lost my brother, I asked, ‘How can I address the issue?’ and I was already working to end veteran and first responder suicide, so the irony of it was even worse,” he said. “Ultimately, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to change the world, to stop this from happening?’”
This Veterans Day, Preston embarked on a 704-mile journey with his wife Cory, a retired San Francisco fire fighter. The hike will take them from Parris Island, South Carolina, through his hometown of Warsaw, Kentucky, and end in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“My brother’s ashes are down here in Huntington Beach, right across from Parris Island, where they spread him; he was stationed down here in Beaufort,” said Preston. “I grew up in Cincinnati, and we’ll walk through multiple places where my brother was a police officer.”
“On behalf of 1319, I am honored to announce and wholeheartedly endorse one of Palo Alto Fire’s own as he embarks on a remarkable journey to raise awareness for suicide prevention,” said Local 1319 President Joe Penko. “John’s commitment to this cause hits close to home for many of us in this field, and John exemplifies the selflessness and dedication that define our firefighting profession.”
This is not the first time Preston has walked in his brother’s memory. In 2020, carrying a 50-pound backpack with his brother’s belongings, Preston and his wife walked down the coast of California, with the help of his fellow brothers in the fire service.
“I walked 630 miles last time, and I would say for about 500 miles, we had a fire engine and police vehicle, and we shut down California State Route 1,” he said.
Preston says each step is a flicker of hope, to show others they are not alone.
“I’m talking to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), everyone in the police world, the veteran world, I want you to see what we’re doing and relate with me because I am you, I have problems, and it’s OK that I do,” he said. “We reached thousands last time, and my goal now is to reach millions and change lives,” he said. “I don’t want people to be aware, I want people to seek help.”
“I encourage each of you to rally behind John, both in spirit and, if possible, through any other means of support,” said Penko. “Together, let us amplify the message of suicide prevention and stand united in fostering a culture of understanding, compassion, and hope.”
To learn more about the IAFF’s resources on suicide awareness, visit the link here. For additional behavioral health resources, visit the link here. To follow Preston’s journey or to find out how you can help, visit the link here.