- Associated Press - Thursday, December 29, 2016

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Josh and Melissa Miles had debated on an unusual New Year’s Day approach this year toward raising awareness about the emotional plights of war veterans.

Ultimately, they decided to take the plunge.

The Lauderdale County couple is organizing the 2017 Polar Bear Plunge, which will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at McFarland Park beach in Florence.

They hope to make this an annual event that will serve to raise awareness on suicide prevention for veterans and honor one of Josh Miles‘ “brothers.”

Chris Apger, who served in Afghanistan with fellow Marine Josh Miles, lost his life to suicide four years ago.

In a sad irony, Apger had started that year by taking a Polar Bear Plunge in North Carolina, where he lived at the time. Struggling emotionally since returnign from oversees, Apger had taken the plunge in hopes of directing himself away from suicide.

According to statistics from the Veterans Administration, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

“Chris was trying to start fresh and did it that year in North Carolina,” Melissa Miles said. “That was his fresh start on life. That’s how he was going to look at the year, and he ended up not winning that battle.”

The following year, Josh Miles and fellow Marine Jerry Graham took a similar plunge at McFarland Park in Apger’s memory.

Since then, the Mileses toyed with the idea of creating an annual plunge at the park.

Melissa Miles said she would love to see a large crowd at the beach for the event. She said everyone is encouraged to join the plunge into the Tennessee River, but there is no pressure to do so. Just showing up is a good sign of support.

Those who wish to remain on the shore can cheer and urge on the plungers, she said.

Everyone is encouraged to wear green in honor of military soldiers and veterans.

She said they would like to collect a donation that either would benefit the Wounded Warriors project or local suicide-prevention programs.

“The Wounded Warriors really does great things for people,” Melissa Miles said. “Josh and I had a whole week at a marriage counseling gathering in Georgia and our marriage really gained from it, and the program paid for it all.”

If Sunday’s plunge draws interest, the couple will try to take it a step further by finding a sponsor for next year.

“Some people have asked about T-shirts,” Melissa Miles said. “We’re not going to do it this time because we want to see if people show up. If they do, we’d love to have T-shirts for next year.”

She said they plan to have hot chocolate available this year to help warm the plungers.

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