Veteran walks across country for suicide awareness

Tom Zurhellen is trekking 22 miles a day from Oregon to New York to help his fellow Veterans


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Veteran Tom Zurhellen was hoping to write a novel this summer. Instead, he’s walking 22 miles a day across the U.S. to raise awareness about Veteran homelessness and suicide.

Zurhellen is a Navy Veteran who teaches English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He’s breaking his journey of about 2,860 miles into segments of 22 miles a day. The daily goal matches an [outdated] number of Veterans who commit suicide each day.

“I had a year off [for] sabbatical and I was just going to write another novel,” he said. “But then I got this commander job at the Poughkeepsie Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170. I’m a Veteran, but I had no idea how much support was needed by our local Veterans with mental health and homelessness.

“I figured if that was happening in my hometown, it had to be happening all across the country. So instead of writing just another silly novel, I decided to use my sabbatical to embark on this crazy adventure.”


A man and a woman pose together for a selfie in a coffee shop

Air Force Veteran Erin Ganzenmuller and Zurhellen


Maintaining the pace

Since leaving Oregon in mid-April, Zurhellen has doggedly maintained his 3-mph pace through all kinds of weather.

“It was 100 degrees in Sioux City, 98 degrees in Beloit, I hit a snowstorm three or four times, sub-freezing temperatures, so yeah, I’ve seen it all,” said Zurhellen.

His journey brought him along the Hank Aaron Trail, which winds through the campus of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

He kicked off his walk through the Milwaukee metro area in a local coffee shop.

On hand to offer support was Navy Veteran Mike Waddell, who said he had learned of Zurhellen’s walk that morning on Facebook.

“I just figured I’d come down and show him a little love and encourage him, keep him going,” Waddell said. “I think what he’s doing is great.”

Erin Maney, a social worker at the Milwaukee VA, said raising awareness with a goal of prevention is extremely important.

“Every day, Veterans are getting the help they need. They’re doing it for real!”

“I think there’s a lot of media coverage when, unfortunately, there’s a Veteran death by suicide,” Maney said. “But there’s not always coverage when every day, Veterans are coming in asking for help, getting the help that they need, and going on to live meaningful lives. What he’s doing is extraordinary.”

Erin Ganzenmuller, an Air Force Veteran and environmental consultant, thanked Zurhellen.

“I think it’s an incredible journey to raise awareness for struggles that our Veterans face,” said Ganzenmuller, who also volunteers at Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. “It’s awesome that he came to Wisconsin.”


A group of people talk outside on a hospital lawn

Zurhellen at the Milwaukee VA greeted by employees and well-wishers


Never giving up

In the early going, Zurhellen thought about giving up, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“There was a time up until about a month ago, I was hitting the wall at about mile 15. And I thought, ‘What am I doing, experiencing pain? It would be so easy to go home.’

“But then I remembered the pain of the Veterans I’m walking for. The people who are dealing with mental health issues. The people who are dealing with homelessness.

“Their pain’s a lot worse than mine. I can go home anytime. It’s like I’m just playing at being a homeless Veteran, but they’re doing it for real. So, when I put in that perspective, it gets a lot easier.”

And with that, it was time for Zurhellen to hit the road and walk another 22 miles—a distance that to him means something far greater than just a number.


Jim Hoehn is a Public Affairs Officer at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.

Photos by Benjamin Slane, Milwaukee VA Medical Center Public Affairs.

Author

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Comments

  1. miguel a alvarado jr    

    I wish I could join you, I was a walker, jogger, but now my lungs have breathing issues, but I will pray for a true go getter as your doing, be blessed, be all you can be….

  2. Carolyn    

    Bless you, and safe Travels.

  3. Robert Rose    

    I am a veteran from the early 70’s I want to say how speechless I was when I read this story. What a crime there is not
    enough money available to do a better job taking care of these vet’s.

  4. freddy chandra    

    My prayers are with you and we are all very proud of you. Keep going its like a marathon one step at a time! Stay strong and be well! One of your vets from Marlboro MA. i HOPE YOU WRITE A BOOK ABOUT YOUR TRAVELS. IT COULD BE ON THE TOP TEN LISTINGS. iF tHE WEATHER GETS BAD PUT A VASIALINE ON YOUR FACE AND HANDS OR WARE PLASTIC GLOVES ON TO KEEP THEM WARM. KEEP ON MOVING AND YOU WILL REACH YOUR DESTATION TO

  5. Claudio Funez    

    POTUS is under the impression the VA is doing a very good job, that the monies allocated are being spent wisely, bottom line, “All is Great”. Well, what about the Suicides amongst the Vets’ community? The Suicide average of 20 Vets per day has not decreased, and that’s just unacceptable. Has anyone asked how is it that these men trained for war, survivors of combat, hard men, rugged men take their lives, and at a VA parking lot?!? I offer you this: More often than not, we walk out of a VA hospital frustrated, alone, dejected, in pain with nowhere to go and no end in sight. I know, I’ve been there thousands of times. We don’t go on a shooting rampage, we don’t yell and scream to gain attention. No, we cry by ourselves, we fight our demons by ourselves. Unfortunately, those demons grow and grow, until they grow SO big we can’t overcome them any more–until we can’t fight them any more. We gave it all we had, our strength is gone, our spirit is gone. So, feeling alone and stripped of all except our pride, that we’lI take with us, that is the moment when we decide to say goodbye.
    I sincerely hope this opens someone’s eyes, someone’s ears, someone’s heart. This is a crisis, This is inhumane, and this is shameful.
    Semper Fi,
    Claudio Funez, USMC, Vet/Retired Military

    1. Adam Stump    

      If you are a Service member or Veteran in crisis or you’re concerned about one, there are specially trained responders ready to help you, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The Veterans Crisis Line connects Service members and Veterans in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text-messaging service.

      Act Now
      Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.
      Send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder.
      Start a confidential online chat session at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
      Take a self-check quiz at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Quiz to learn whether stress and depression might be affecting you.
      Find a VA facility near you.
      Visit MilitaryCrisisLine.net if you are an active duty Service member, Guardsman, or Reservist.
      Connect through chat, text, or TTY if you are deaf or hard of hearing.

  6. Joan Solders    

    I believe what you are doing is so great. My husband was a vet. He passed June 7th of Agent Orange. Keep this up. Hope more people walk with you.

  7. Andy McInnes USAF vet    

    Helping Vets who need help is better then the best novel! God Bless your journey and know we are all better for your sacrifice

  8. Kelly Crabtree    

    Wish you could make it down to Home of the Brave in Senatobia MS. We would put you up in a cozy bunkhouse and feed you well. Let us know how we can support your hike. ♥️
    http://Www.home4brave.com

  9. Brian J Mulcrone    

    Where or where is he on the journey this Labor Day Week 2019?

    Brian J Mulcrone
    Public Relations Chair
    Illinois State Council
    Vietnam Veterans of America

  10. Richard    

    I too am planning a walk for Veterans Mental Health
    A Veterans Last Trek to start from VA Hospital Wilks Berre Pa the spring of 2020. The trek will take around the US . North, West, South, East, then back north ending at the VA.

  11. Michael Behrens    

    Way to go Tom! Kinderhook, NY is pulling for you.

  12. WALTER F. FINAN    

    / think what you doing is great!! I My prayers are with you and we are all very proud of you. Keep going its like a marathon one step at a time! Stay strong and be well! One of your vets from Marlboro MA. i HOPE YOU WRITE A BOOK ABOUT YOUR TRAVELS. IT COULD BE ON THE TOP TEN LISTINGS. iF tHE WEATHER GETS BAD PUT A VASIALINE ON YOUR FACE AND HANDS OR WARE PLASTIC GLOVES ON TO KEEP THEM WARM. KEEP ON MOVING AND YOU WILL REACH YOUR DESTATION

  13. Cpl Austin    

    Thank all of you for bringing more awareness of the plight that Veterans face every day, you and all of our Active Military and Veterans are in our thoughts and prayers.

  14. Kerry Good    

    So true my brother! Godspeed on your endeavor.

Comments are closed.