It is said the first step to every journey is the hardest. As I stepped away from my home in Clarksville, TN on November 11th, 2016, I knew it was true. I had decided to walk from my city towards the west coast, attempting to make it 2,200 miles to the Santa Monica pier as quickly as i could. As a 15-year United States Army Veteran with two combat deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, I knew the pain of leaving home and returning a different person. The pain and emotional toll of being in combat led me to a decision that so many face. In the winter of 2011, I attempted to end my life. I failed, and with that failure I found a purpose to improve myself by finding solace in the community around me. I continued with my career until March of 2016 when I was medically discharged in Fort Campbell, KY. Eight months later,I began my new mission.
With a rucksack of over sixty pounds strapped on my back, I took my first step, carrying nothing but my equipment, the food and water I need for sustenance, and a full-sized American Flag. My goal was to keep moving forward to entertain, educate and inspire people to help lower the Veteran suicide rate. Currently the most accurate statistic from 2014 states that 20 prior service members take their lives every day. That number is a travesty. Men and women from every generation that has suffered through the hells of war make up that number.
My journey was to be done with no monetary donations, in order to keep the message about the cause and not the quick fix that money provides. I only allowed myself to take food and hotel rooms as donations when they were available. Some nights I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag on the side of the road and hoped the elements would not be too unkind.
Along the route I was able to meet people from every walk of life. Most were gracious enough to help me along the way. Because of the kindness of strangers, I was able to attend events that helped raise funds for Veterans in need, as well as help connect organizations dealing with this problem so that they might collaborate and help one another. I spent my days walking from town to town, painfully attempting to trek fifteen to twenty miles a day. Some days I was able to walk more, some less, depending on injury or inclement weather that would have been too dangerous to walk in. Some dangers I faced include being stalked by a coyote in the Arkansas wetlands, being clipped by a semi truck on a rainy day in Texas, and fighting through dehydration and heat exhaustion through the Colorado Desert in California.
My journey was captured via social media platforms with the moniker @nerdnesto #forthe22. From there i was able to share pictures, stories and live videos.Through Facebook, members of the page were able to reach me and send messages of encouragement as well as their own stories of triumph over their own attempts. Sometimes the stories were of families whose loved ones were lost too soon. I made it a priority to ensure that people on the page grew together as a community and used each other as support in times of need. I left my personal number on the page as a testament that i was not someone that could not be reached. I was there for anyone in need, and I wanted those watching to follow in that message.
I completed my walk on April 19th, 2017, and was joined on my last five miles by a group of followers who walked with me from West Hollywood, California to Santa Monica pier. I couldn’t help but pick up the pace, knowing my goal was within reach. The Veterans, reporters, celebrities and family members who joined me for this last leg followed close behind, cheering me on. Every mile, I would look back and see that the group had grown even larger. With the Pacific Ocean in sight, a police escort arrived and allowed us to walk on the road to the end of the pier. On the last quarter mile, my mind felt peace, and everything but my goal blurred away. I ran as fast as I could to the water, and as I reached the end of the pier, I slowed my steps, knowing I had completed something not many have. My bag fell heavy on the planks of the boardwalk and I felt a lightness I had not felt in five months. I turned to see people waiting for me to say something. All I could muster up was, “I made it.” I pulled Old Glory from its resting position, found my 100 MPH tape, and attached her to the end of the pier. As of today she still flies over the west coast.
I sit today, accomplished, knowing that a community grew louder and came together for a common purpose. I have a lifetime of stories to share from my experience crossing our amazing country and the people I’ve met along the way. My next mission is to co-write a book about the journey. The book will be written in twenty-two chapters, chronicling the twenty-two weeks of this physically and emotionally draining task. Within those chapters will be a paragraph dedicated to one of our fallen comrades. This paragraph will not be about how that person died, but celebrate how they lived. A veteran, proud to have served his Nation. We honor them, and we remember. #forthe22