In its first year, the March On Challenge made light work of its target, more than tripling the anticipated fundraising result. The goal? To prevent veteran suicide.

People will go to great lengths to complete a charity challenge but someone taking part in a long-distance walk on the ocean floor is a new one for us. And that’s exactly what one participant did in his (successful) bid to complete a 96km walking challenge for charity Soldier On, an organisation started in 2012 by three Australians following the death of their friend in an Afghanistan bomb blast.

The ocean walker wasn’t the only one to go above and beyond in his fundraising efforts – three groups completed their walks by traversing the ‘Aussie 10 Peaks’ (the highest of which is Mount Kosciuszko), and we can’t forget Soldier On patron, Sergeant Bert Le-Merton, a 102-year old World War II veteran, who has walked the challenge distance several times over, inspiring many others and the popular campaign hashtag, #MarchOnWithBert.

Image of Sergeant Bert Le-Merton, supplied by Soldier On. 

On 3 November 2021, Bert was recognised as a finalist in the 2022 Senior Australian of the Year Awards, based on his incredible commitment to the March On Challenge. In August 2020, Sergeant Bert set out walking with the hope of raising $10,000 for Soldier On – a fundraising target he surpassed before he even set off. In the subsequent months, Sergeant Bert averaged 1.75km a day, achieving his initial goal of 96km on 10 October 2020. Bert was greeted at the finish line by the Australian Federation Guard who lined his street in a guard of honour, a sign of gratitude for his support of our contemporary veterans. But Bert’s mission did not end there! He continued to March On, reaching another significant milestone by reaching 192km, doubling his goal and raising more than $110,000 by 12 February 2021. By 31 March 2021, Bert had clocked an incredible total of 419.15km walked and $112,223 raised to help prevent veteran suicide.

Inspiration for the challenge and distance

92km is not a random distance – it is the length of the Kokoda Track, which marks the course of one of the most important battles for Australians in the Second World War. The men who defended this rugged 96km track were the only line of defence protecting Australia from imminent invasion.

The March On Challenge was created as a fundraiser to increase the support Soldier On are able to provide to Australia’s brave veterans. Participants are asked to complete the 96km walking challenge in their own time during the month of March. The money raised will go towards Soldier On’s mental health services and programs that help returned Australian Defence Force members.

Soldier On operates nationally and supports more than 6,000 veterans and their family members through health and wellbeing services, employment support, learning and education programs, and social connection activities. Sadly, the transition from military to civilian life presents significant challenges including loss of identity, purpose and belonging, social isolation, a higher susceptibility to anxiety disorders and PTSD, increased risk of some cancers, and a suicide risk up to 2.2 times greater than that experienced by the general population.

Here’s how March On helped

With a target of $500,000, the Year 1 results surpassed the teams’ wildest dreams. The campaign raised an incredible $1.85 million. More than 6,200 participants, 862 teams, and 27 schools took part in the challenge, marching a total of 382,000km across the globe.

Asked why she thought the event had been such a success with such far-reaching participation, Solider On’s National Marketing and Communications Director, Jane Farrell, told us that the need for the charity’s work is more than you would realise; one in 26 Australians know someone working in the defence force, therefore many of the people taking part had a personal connection to the cause. She also believes that the much-needed focus on mental health, currently experienced across the globe, provided affinity to the cause. And finally, she feels that Bert Le-Merton’s efforts did much to raise the event’s profile; “People felt that if a 102-year old could walk the challenge, then what excuse did they have for not taking part,” says Jane.

So, incredible results indeed and they have been deservedly recognised, with the March On Challenge winning an Outstanding Achievement Award for Soldier On in The Australian Charity Awards 2021.

Soldier On CEO, Ivan Slavich, said the organisation is honoured to receive this award.

“The suicide rate among Australian veterans is simply unacceptable. Soldier On knows what must be done. We’ve proven that our programs are comprehensive and relevant to help our veterans and their families build better futures following their service. The challenge now is to expand our services across all areas of the nation where veterans are based but find themselves without support. This requires funding and the demonstrated support of every Australian. This is why we are marching on,” Ivan said.

“We are putting on more psychologists, more counsellors, and offering more social activities to help prevent veteran suicide. We look forward to hosting the event again in 2022,” Ivan added.

Here is a radio interview with the incredible Bert, who explains why he supports the March On Challenge.

The major award at The Australian Charity Awards, Australian Charity of the Year, went to the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife (FNPW), the charity partner of Australia’s National Parks. The award recognises FNPW’s commitment to preserving Australia’s wilderness and wildlife, in particular its bushfire recovery efforts following the devastating Black Summer.

Alongside Soldier On, Outstanding Achievement Awards also went to Children’s University Australasia; Dignity; Disaster Relief Australia; Earbus Foundation of WA; FSHD Global Research;  Mindspot, MQ Health; PetRescue; and Volunteering Gold Coast.

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