Operation VEST hosts dog tag run for suicidal veterans

‘Pawticipants’ raise money for organization

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Operation VEST, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans, put the “dog” in dog tag on June 11, as they held an annual dog tag run to raise money and awareness for suicidal veterans at Gardiner County Park in Bay Shore.

Participants were able to register their dogs or “pawticipants,” as Operation VEST called them. All proceeds raised from dogs running was tripled by Operation VEST and donated to Paws of War, an organization that rescues dogs from kill shelters, trains them to become service and support dogs, and provides them to veterans who suffer from the emotional and physical effects of war.

Over 300 people raced in-person, along with 36 dogs. There was also an option to race virtually, in which 24 people participated, according to Elite Feats.

Stefan and Jenny Hespeler co-founded Operation VEST in March 2020. They have veterans in their family and wanted to help veterans, as the national average of veteran suicides is about 22 per day.

After concluding the race, participants were given dog tags that read: “Dog tag run 2.2 for the 22,” as the run was 2.2 miles.

“[Operation VEST donates the funds raised to local Long Island nonprofit organizations] to help cover the costs of alternative methods of treatment for post-traumatic stress through sailing, equine therapy, the arts, like guitar, music, acting, comedy and painting,” Hespeler said.

Other vendors at the event included Black 6 Coffee Trading Co., a veteran-owned company; Suicide Awareness and Remembrance Flag, which created a flag to raise awareness for suicidal veterans; Paws of War, Team RWB, SailAhead and Team Chris.

“There’s a need to be able to give back to our veterans that have given so much,” Hespeler said. “They’ve signed up with a blank check payable for [the] United States of America for any amount up to and including their own life. So [fundraising] is the least that we can do to be able to give back, in some ways, another form of service.”

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