By: Steven B. Brooks
With the most fabled track in motor racing as the backdrop, The American Legion joined with others to address one of the most critical issues facing veterans today: a high suicide rate that a new campaign will address, starting on one of motorsport's biggest stages.
With the unveiling of 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan’s livery for this year’s “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” came the unveiling of an effort spearheaded by The American Legion and Chip Ganassi Racing that calls on the public to become involved.
Kanaan was given the OK from teammate Alex Palou – the 2021 INDYCAR Series champ – to use the No. 1 for the race – an honor bestowed each race on the previous year’s series champ. On Kanaan’s No. 1 American Legion Honda is the phrase “Be the One”, the name for the campaign to address veteran suicides. It’s a cause that Kanaan, who finished 10th in the Legion car at the 500 in 2021, believes in strongly.
“It’s such a good cause – ‘Be the One,’” Kanaan said during the April 20 press event outside of the pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I made the pledge to the veterans to advocate that … if you need help, ask. Voice it up. I’ve learned that 17 veterans take their lives every day. We’re here for that. Hopefully we’ll get the word out.”
During the event Kanaan was joined by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and American Legion Chief Marketing Officer Dean Kessel, who called the number of daily suicides “the biggest issue facing this generation of veterans.” He said the challenge behind the “Be the One” campaign is that that “if you can save the life of one veteran today, would you be the one to do it? You’re going to be hearing that from us a lot, what we’re going to be doing and how we’re going to be doing it.”
At the start of the press conference, a group of veterans symbolically stood behind the No. 1 Honda, a mix of American Legion Riders and Ganassi employees. “That was 17 veterans to represent the 17 veterans that take their lives daily,” Kessel said. “That’s got to stop. That’s this generation (of veterans’) biggest challenge, and we have to do something about it. And there’s no organization more poised than The American Legion to do that. With our political capital on Capitol Hill. With our 1.8 million members across the country, our peer-to-peer network is unrivaled.
“This is not just a campaign. It’s a generational lift. The primary goal of our ‘Be the One’ campaign is eliminating the stigma involved with asking for help. That is the No. 1 hurdle for veterans seeking mental help. We want to de-stigmatize that.”
Holcomb, a U.S. Navy veteran and member of Historic Fort Benjamin Harrison American Legion Post 510 in Indianapolis, drove from the Statehouse to IMS with Kanaan.
“There couldn’t be a better reason why we started the day today together than this cause at this time on this hallowed ground,” Holcomb said. “I think it’s our duty, as citizens of this nation and state, for those (servicemembers) fortunate to make it back, to be there for them. To understand the burdens that they bring back with the orders they’ve received, going to some hairy and scary places in this world. We’re there to help them de-stigmatize and help them get through the days ahead because of the burdens they bear for us. They stepped forward.”
Holcomb said Indiana will be a part of the ‘Be the One’ campaign. “We could not be more proud to align all of our state efforts on mental health alongside (The American Legion),” he said. “I would just encourage everyone to be the one. You could be the one. If you don’t know how to help but you want to, get them connected with the Legion. Get them connected with the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs. Not only can they help, they want to help. It's their mission.”
For CGR team owner Chip Ganassi, the issue of veteran suicides “is something that needs attention brought to it, first and foremost. When you’re losing 17 veterans a day to suicide, that’s something you can almost see with your bare eyes. How do you make the awareness of such an issue? How do you bring it to light? There is no better place to do it than in Indianapolis on Memorial Day – the day that we have put aside to honor veterans. And these guys need honored, believe me. They’ve seen things that none of us will ever see in our lifetime.”
Ganassi said partnering with The American Legion – an official charity of INDYCAR – opened his eyes to the issue he and the Legion are addressing with “Be the One.”
“It just brought a new awareness to me personally, I guess, being involved with the Legion here on Memorial Day in Indianapolis,” Ganassi said. “I just want to help.”
Among the group of American Legion Riders that escorted Kanaan and Holcomb from downtown Indianapolis to the track were ALR National Advisory Committee Chairman Mark Clark.
“The fact that the Chip Ganassi Racing team has partnered with The American Legion … to help us fight the veteran suicide crisis that’s occurring in our country today, to be a part of that is humbling,” Clark said. “I know veterans that have taken their own life. I’m hopeful that this campaign will bring awareness to the challenge (and) help folks understand it’s the right thing to seek out help. But more importantly, to bring attention to the resources that are available to veterans. I really think this campaign can open a lot of doors for us.”
Kessel said the campaign is focused on making an incremental change that will long-term continue to grow. “We want to stop talking about the 17 and focus on the one,” he said. “If we can save one a day, that number will come down, and that’s the goal of everything that we’re doing here.”
Watch the entire press event here.