BELOIT, Wis. (WTVO) — A Beloit College alumni walked 22 miles a day across the country to raise awareness of issues that drive American military veterans to suicide.
In 2019, Tommy Zurhellen, himself a veteran of the Navy, grabbed his running shoes and started walking.
He said the plight of homeless veterans and suicide is something he knows all too well.
“My transition was pretty rough,” he said. “I was basically by myself, living in Washington State, [where] I didn’t really know anybody.”
Zurhellen went to Beloit College to play football, and graduated with a creative writing degree. Even still, he was unable to find a job, so he joined the Navy.
“I enlisted right after college and spent six years in the Navy and two in the reserves,” he said.
Zurhellen became a commander at a VFW in his hometown in New York.
“I was immediately shocked to find out how much, how many challenges a lot of our veterans faced here, just in our community. And then I was shocked to learn about those numbers that affect our veterans all over the country, like those 22 veteran suicides a day and those 40,000 homeless veterans every night. So, I can’t sing or dance, so I decided to do something outside of my comfort zone and attempt to walk across America,” he said.
Zurhellen flew to Portland, Oregon and planned a route all the way back to New York.
“I was completely unprepared. The physical part actually became the easy part. It was the mental part, of having to do it everyday, of being a homeless veteran everyday, in and out, that really took it’s toll,” he said. “If you asked me in the first couple of months, I would not have I said it’s going very well. But somehow I made it,” he said.
The trek covered 3,000 miles. Zurhellen walked 22 miles a day to signify the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day.
“The only reason why I made it is because of all the amazing veterans and their stories, that I met along the way. And they carried me across the finish line,” he said.
“There’s so many forgotten heroes all across America who fall through the cracks. I met a Vietnam veteran who was living in the desert, on top of a mountain, for the last 40 to 50 years, ever since he got back from Vietnam. And, I wish that story was isolated, but it’s pretty much, everyday, I would meet a new veteran and they would tell me their story and, you know what? The stories were all different, but they were all the same, too. They’re stories of heartbreak and loss and, kinda, being forgotten,” he continued.
Zurhellen said he was shocked that so many veterans still face these kinds of challenges.
“Probably the biggest thing I learned is: people were surprised to learn about these challenges facing our veterans. We always say ‘thank you for your service,’ and I think we do a good job supporting our heroes, but we have a lot of ground to cover,” he said.
Zurhellen says that’s where the VetZero Project comes in, which offers free transportation to appointments and teaches job skills to veterans. The project’s goal is to reduce veteran suicide and homelessness.
“We need to do a better job, shine a spotlight on these heroes and their issues, and get them the support they need,” Zurhellen said.
Zurhellen’s walk raised more than $70,000, and he wrote a book about his experience, called “The Low Road: Walking the Walk for Veterans.” The proceeds go to the VetZero Project.