After Tom Zurhellen’91 discovered disturbingly high rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans, he set out to walk some 3,000 miles to try to turn the situation around.
Tom Zurhellen’91 learned a few things last summer during his nearly 3,000-mile walk across America.
Pack light. Wear good shoes. And accept the kindness of strangers.
From mid-April to late August, Zurhellen walked from Portland, Ore., to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., while on sabbatical from his job as a creative writing professor at Marist College. His mission was to raise awareness about the alarming rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans.
It all started when Zurhellen, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Beloit, joined V.F.W. Post 170 in Poughkeepsie. The older members, who called him “kid,” caught him off guard when they elected him as their Commander.
In his new role, he discovered some disturbing statistics. Recent Veteran’s Administration research revealed that 22 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States, and 40,387 veterans are homeless every night. The suicide statistic is twice that of non-veterans. Once his eyes were opened to these issues, Zurhellen says he felt he had to act. “I needed to do something really special to raise awareness,” he says.
In keeping with his personality and his physique, Zurhellen went big. He decided to go across the country, walking 22 miles each day and trying to raise $40,387 “to get those numbers out there.” His V.F.W. post calls the service project “Vet Zero” because of its ambitious goal: to reduce both of these statistics to zero.
Zurhellen is a towering presence, at least six-and-a-half-feet tall. But when he stopped by Beloit with about 900 miles left to go on his trek, he poked fun at his own lack of athleticism and preparedness for such a demanding project. His self-effacing humor served to emphasize that idealistic goals can be within reach of anyone who dares to set them.
Reflecting on the previous 2,000 miles, he remembered some of his missteps, such as setting out from Portland with too much stuff and all the wrong gear. (He had since reduced his baggage to a single 15-pound pack.) He recalled one night when it was 28 degrees and he shivered on the ground under an emergency blanket. By the time he made it to Beloit, he was already on his fourth pair of shoes after walking an average of eight hours a day.
But he wasn’t complaining.
“I’ve been like a homeless vet for 100 days, but it’s different for me because I know that I could quit and just fly back home,” he says. “My pain is inconsequential compared with veterans.”
By the time he made it to Beloit, the attention his project was getting was starting to pay off. On that steamy July morning as Zurhellen left campus, the Vet Zero GoFundMe page had about 400 donations, most of it in increments of $22.
From the very beginning, Zurhellen says he was touched by the number of people who stopped along the road to see if he was OK, even if they didn’t initially know why he was walking.
His Facebook friends included veterans across the country who tracked his journey and stopped to meet him. People along the route gave him food and shelter. In Beloit, local veterans joined faculty and staff for a sendoff that included accompanying him on his first mile out of town. As the group moved north along the Rock River recreation path, people showed up randomly, just to shake Zurhellen’s hand and wish him well. Local veteran and woodworker Rich Bundy surprised Zurhellen by making him a new walking stick carved with the names of all the branches of the military.
Credit: Photo by: Lauren Justice
At mail drops in each state, people also sent him things. For a time, he proudly wore the Beloit College baseball cap Beloit’s Alumni Office sent him. Other Facebook friends discovered he liked Nutter Butters and shipped him 40 pounds of the peanut butter sandwich cookies.
Zurhellen had a lot of time to think on his journey, and he has a working title for a book he plans to write about his experiences: “Tom Zurhellen has one year to give.”
He says the project started with a simple question: Can one person change the world? “My positive self said ‘sure,’” he says, “But now I believe that one person can’t bring change without the help of others. We need everybody. We need these statistics to become common knowledge.”