Military veterans begin journey down Mississippi River to fundraise for kids fighting cancer

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A group of military veterans from Montana have set off on a journey down the Mississippi River in a pontoon boat to help make a difference for children fighting cancer. 

Robert Sistok says he has wanted to boat down the Mississippi River for years, but debilitating seizures kept him from even leaving his home. All that changed this week to help make a buddy’s bucket list item a reality.

It may be a risky journey, but the group calls the children battling cancer the real heroes.

“We came 1,220 miles from Montana to do this float for St. Jude’s,” said Sistok, founder of DAV Dudes for St. Jude.

At the dock of St. Paul’s Watergate Marina, a group of disabled American veterans pull a longboat into the swollen Mississippi River.

“Hell or high water, and there’s definitely high water, we’re going to do it,” said Sistok, motioning toward the river.

From the marina's dock, they launch a month-long run on Sistok’s pontoon for a trek more than 1,100 miles long to New Orleans as “DAV Dudes for St. Jude.” Sistok started the group after 22 years as a Marine. The term DAV stands for Disabled American Veteran.

“I thought DAV Dudes - I’m 100 percent disabled from the Corps,” he said. “I have seizures every month. It just seemed to fit.”

The name and effort also fit because Sistok knows both what it means to suffer and to experience the pain of losing loved ones to cancer, all too well.

“I lost my family to cancer,” said Sistok through tears. “My mom’s got stage four, my sister just lost both of her breasts, my dad died, my brother died. There’s only me and my sister and my brother left that are cancer free out of seven of us. It’s eating us up and what’s better than St. Jude’s?”

To cruise the Mississippi River for the mission was all Mark Johnson’s idea.

“There’s so much evil in the world these days, let’s help the innocent is the way we look at it, and the kids are all innocent,” said Johnson, an Army veteran involved in DAV Dudes.

Also along for the ride is Army veteran Kenny Sunell. The good friends are all fully aware some people will say they’ve gone overboard. 

“I say they’re jealous,” said Johnson. “They’re jealous.”

“They’re probably right, but I think it’s going to be exciting,” said Sunell.

For Sistok, it’s not about him or his crew.

“Who the hell cares about an old washed up Marine?” he said. “This is all for checks for St. Jude’s.”

He says it’s all about the purpose in his wake.   

“In your lifetime you’re lucky if you get one chance to do something truly remarkable,” said Sistok. “You’re lucky if you get one. This is my chance.”

The group will stop at motels and sand bars where they can and only sleep on the pontoon when they have to. Meanwhile, Sistok says he will spend the entire float on his cell phone raising money for St. Jude's Children’s Hospital.