‘You Aren’t Weak’: Fitch’s dedication to suicide prevention lives on

Mary Christine Stevens/For the Mining Gazette A memorial to U.S. Army Maj. Justin Fitch stands in front of the ROTC building on Michigan Tech’s campus. 

Justin Fitch was born and raised in Hayward, Wisconsin. He enjoyed the sciences, computers and math, and so began his journey at Michigan Tech in 2000. Fitch always looked up to students who were in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Fitch joined the Army ROTC program himself the summer after his freshman year.

Following his sophomore year, he enrolled in the U.S. Army Airborne School with hopes of being a paratrooper. He graduated Cum Laude in 2005, earning a B.S. in Business Administration with a concentration in industrial marketing and a minor in military science.

Fitch was commissioned into the Army the day of his college graduation. A few weeks later, he married his wife, Samantha Marie Wolk. Shortly afterward, he reported for officer training courses at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was then deployed to Forward Operating Base McHenry in Iraq. A few years later, Fitch was assigned to the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, and took command of the Human Research and Development Detachment. Three months into the new assignment, Fitch was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. Several intensive surgeries and over 50 rounds of chemotherapy followed. 

“It’s surgeries, and recovering from surgeries,” he said, during a 2015 interview with Michigan Tech Magazine. “Otherwise it’s three days of chemo every other week. That’s why I was medically retired. I have stage 4 colon cancer, which is incurable and terminal. My time on Earth is limited.” After his diagnosis, Fitch decided he wanted to do something meaningful with the time he had left. 

“There was a big stigma in the military about suicide at the time,” Fitch said. It was something he had once attempted himself, when he was deployed to Iraq the first time. “That’s an archaic way of thinking. Mental wounds are real.” 

Fitch got involved with Carry the Fallen, a project orchestrated by the nonprofit Active Heroes. He was motivated by their mission of raising awareness and preventing veteran suicides.

“I’m credible on this issue, facing death the way I am,” he said. “People listen to you when you’re in this state. I use that soapbox to speak out on this issue as loudly as possible, to talk about this project.” 

Carry the Fallen organizes rucks, where participants march with a heavy amount of gear strapped to their back. Fitch completed a marathon-length ruck along the Boston Marathon route in 2013. Fitch went on to complete several other rucks, of varying lengths. As his health declined, he wasn’t able to continue the physical aspect. Instead, he shifted to working the support vehicle at the ruck events.

Fitch was part of countless other veteran support projects, including fundraising to build a national American veterans family retreat. Almost $90,000 was contributed in his name. Fitch was committed to truly making a difference and saving veteran lives, and encouraged others to do the same.

“Civilians and veterans: get help if you need it. It’s not a sign of weakness. You aren’t weak. And look out for each other. A phone call and a visit can save a life.” 

In 2015, Fitch, having attained the rank of major, received the Humanitarian Award from the Michigan Tech Alumni Association. He passed away in October 2015, at the age of 33. A memorial to him stands in front of the ROTC building on Michigan Tech’s campus. 

Fitch is remembered fondly as someone who was compassionate and genuine. Fitch and Joe Smith were both in Team Minutemen, a group Fitch formed when he lived in Boston in order to raise money and awareness for his cause.

Smith said of Fitch, “He’d give his cellphone number to anyone who might need it and tell them to call him day or night if they were in need, and his phone rang all the time with vets reaching out to him for help.” 

Paul J. O’Leary, one of Fitch’s friends, recalled the day he found out Fitch had died.

“On Sunday morning, I woke up, grabbed a cup of coffee, and turned on my computer to learn that Justin had died,” O’Leary recalled. “And I had lost a hero.”


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