NY Vet Is Walking Across The Country For Fellow Veterans (Video)

March 14, 2019 - Marist Professor Tommy Zurhellen prepares for his walk across America for VetZero. Photo by Carlo de Jesus/Marist College

Twenty-two.

That’s how many veterans on average commit suicide in the United States every day.

It’s also the number of miles Navy veteran Thomas Zurhellen plans to walk each day on a trek across the country from Portland, Ore. to Poughkeepsie, NY to raise awareness of veteran suicides and homelessness.

Zurhellen began his nearly 3,000-mile journey Monday deliberately without a tent or advanced plans of where he is to spend each night so he can experience what millions of homeless veterans endure.

Zurhellen explained:

“I’m going to be a homeless veteran for 133 days. I’m just gonna figure it out, like millions of homeless do. I’m not going to have support vehicles or a safety net. I won’t even carry a tent. I’ll be a homeless veteran for 133 days, depending on the kindness of strangers.”

A Marist College English professor currently on sabbatical, Zurhellen originally envisioned spending his time off writing his fourth book, “all ready to just take it easy and write a nice novel and drink a lot of coffee, maybe go on some trips.”

Then he was named commander of Poughkeepsie’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 170, and his association with so many fellow veterans changed his perspective.

Of his year serving as commander, Zurhellen stated:

“This past year, pretty much every day I have been confronted with a veteran who needs help. We can’t help all of them just being the VFW, so we wanted to raise awareness to the community and to the nation that we all need to take care of these problems.”

He added:

“I’ve seen first-hand the significant problems facing our veterans today, especially our younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most folks don’t fully realize the extent of serious issues like suicide and homelessness affecting our returning heroes. Our goal should be zero: zero veteran suicides and zero veteran homelessness. We simply need to do a better job of taking care of our veterans.”

In response, Zurhellen formed “Vetzero.”

Along the way, in addition to relying on others’ generosity, Zurhellen intends to visit fellow VFW posts.

Zurhellen mapped a route that will take him to or near Boise, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Sioux City, Iowa; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Flint, Michigan; and Buffalo, New York.

In addition:

“There are parts of this country where there are no towns for 50 to 100 miles. I’ll be out there in the middle of it.”

The amount in GoFundMe donations Zurhellen hopes to raise–$40,387, to benefit local veteran programs like Hudson River Housing and Vet 2 Vet–represents the average number of homeless veterans in America every night, according to a 2015 Veterans’ Administration (VA) study.

Zurhellen said:

“We take for granted that the VA takes care of these problems, but people fall through the cracks. Vet 2 Vet Dutchess and Hudson Valley Housing help save these veterans.” 

But enduring the walk is not the only potential obstacle Zurhellen may confront.

He quipped:

“I can’t run. If I get chased by a bear, I’m dead.”

We can follow Tom Zurhellen’s progress on Twitter at @zero_vet and on Facebook at VetZero.

Zurhellen will return to Poughkeepsie in August.

Image credit: Carlo de Jesus, Marist College

Ted Millar is poet and teacher. His poetry has been in featured in myriad literary journals, including Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to Op-Ed News and Liberal Nation Rising.