Tommy Zurhellen started walking east from Portland, Oregon, on April 14, intent on touching lives.
He trudged along one mile. Then another. And another.
The 50-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran averages 22 miles a day, a distance he chose to raise awareness.
Zurhellen cites a 2015 Veterans Administration report saying an average of 22 vets each day take their own lives, which is more than double the suicide rate in the civilian population.
“The biggest issue is getting vets the mental health help they need,” Zurhellen said. “In the military, we are trained not to complain, not to ask questions. So it is tough ...”
On Wednesday, the man with a message will make his way to Beloit, where he will be welcomed Thursday at a Beloit College event.
Zurhellen graduated from Beloit College in 1991, served in the U.S. Navy from 1991 to 1997 and teaches English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
On Friday morning, Zurhellen will leave Beloit and walk to Janesville on Highway 51. The self-described big man with a funny hat invites people, including other vets, to walk with him.
Zurhellen is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and sometimes wears his VFW commander post cap. As commander of the VFW post in Poughkeepsie, he first became aware of the challenges veterans face.
“I get a lot of calls from the VA, nonprofits and individual vets all asking for help from my post,” Zurhellen said. “I figured if this is going on in my town, it has to be going on in other towns across the country.”
The realization motivated his walking adventure, which will end after almost 3,000 miles in Poughkeepsie.
“I knew I wanted to do something to create awareness,” Zurhellen said.
The response has been “really phenomenal,” he said. “I meet veterans every day, and it is great hearing their stories. Once you are a veteran, you see the world through different eyes. You really can’t explain that to others.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs released its newest National Suicide Data Report in June, which is based on data from 2005 through 2015.
The report said:
- An average of 20 veterans succumbed to suicide every day, and veteran suicide rates are still higher than in the civilian population, especially among women.
- The number includes deaths of active-duty service members and members of the National Guard and Reserve.
Zurhellen also is intent on bringing awareness to the average number of homeless vets in America every night: more than 40,000.
“People are very surprised when they hear this number, which is based on a Veterans Administration survey,” Zurhellen said. “A lot of VA programs have been cut in recent years. Homelessness is an ‘everyone’ issue, but we should be taking care of our veterans. They are the ones who protect us, and we should protect them.”
People have a lot of stereotypes about homeless vets, he added.
“We think we know their situations, but we really don’t,” Zurhellen said. “I have worked with many homeless vets, and it really opened my eyes to know that none fit the tired stereotypes. These are hardworking people who have had their medical benefits changed or some other reason to find themselves in financial circumstances they cannot control.”
Zurhellen hopes to raise more than $40,000 for programs to support veterans though a GoFundMe page.
Everyone knows a veteran, and “probably a lot of veterans are struggling, even if we don’t know it,” Zurhellen said. “People need to connect with the veterans they know. It sounds simple, but it is not. Once we raise awareness, we can start identifying vets who need help.”
Zurhellen is more than halfway through his journey, which he hopes will make a difference.
“Things are turning out better than I had hoped,” he said. “Being a New Yorker, I had this fear of no one on the road really caring about what I was doing. But that has not happened at all. People stop all the time and want to talk about the veterans in their lives.”