Non-profit devoted to helping military, first responders struggling with PTSD plans stair climb fundraiser

Since the 9/11 terror attack, the number of US service members who have died by suicide is four times higher than those who have died in combat.

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A local non-profit is looking to help military, veterans and first responders overcome their mental health challenges by fighting the stigma against post-traumatic stress disorder and filling the gaps in care.

As first responders, Mary Kreiner and Christine Brzoska know that sometimes taking that first step is the hardest.

“Reaching out is not easy, and especially when you're a first responder or active military, you're the helper,” said Christine Brzoska, a paramedic with the Aurora Township Fire Department.

But even the helpers need help, something Mary Kreiner, a firefighter and EMT with the Aurora Township Fire Department, knows firsthand.

“I worked a cardiac arrest on our department's chaplain, and we lost him. And after that, I heard the sirens. I saw the lights, and I can smell everything that happened in that room, and I didn't think that it was okay to hurt or to cry about it,” Kreiner said.

But Kreiner got the help she needed.

That's one of the reasons why Kreiner and her partner, Brzoska, are preparing for the “Steps of Strength Stair Climb” hosted by the non-profit Support Over Stigma on Saturday, Sept. 16 in Downers Grove.

“The important thing is just to start somewhere, reach out to someone, take that first step,” said Zoeie Kreiner, founder of Support Over Stigma.

Zoeie Kreiner chose to host a stair climb because of the symbolism of taking that first step. And she chose the location – the Esplanade at Locust Point, 2001 Butterfield Rd. in Downers Grove, for a specific reason as well.

The office tower is the home of Detail Kings, a car wash and detail shop, started by Paul Kludac, while the Downers Grove native was in high school.

“Paul was larger than life. He really was, he was always telling people, 'Anything day or night, call me, call me, call me,'" Zoeie Kreiner said.

In addition to being a business owner, Kludac was a husband and father to a young son. He was also a Marine veteran, having served in Iraq. In April 2023, Kludac lost his battle with PTSD and tragically took his own life.

“We don't want anybody to ever suffer alone. And we don't ever want anybody else to have to go through that, or like Paul's widow, Jenny, or his son, Karter. You don't want anybody to have to suffer that loss,” Kreiner said.

But it’s happening daily.

Since 9/11, the number of US service members who have died by suicide is four times higher than those who have died in combat.

“More and more our medical technology has improved. So we're more and more able to save people who suffer such severe traumatic brain injuries, which can kind of go hand in hand with PTSD. But our mental health has not kept pace with our medicine,” said Kreiner."

That’s why Support Over Stigma has sent care packages and hosted trainings aimed at getting resources to military members, veterans and first responders in need. The “Steps For Strength Stair Climb” is another way to fight the uphill battle.

For more information about the stair climb, click here.

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