Navy veteran walking cross-country stops in Sioux City, raising awareness of veteran suicide
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Advocate making nationwide trek, on foot

Navy veteran walking cross-country stops in Sioux City, raising awareness of veteran suicide

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Tom Zurhellen veteran suicide awareness

Tom Zurhellen of Poughkeepsie, New York, walks Monday along U.S. Highway 20 east of Sioux City, on his way to Fort Dodge, Iowa. Zurhellen, a Navy veteran and Marist College professor, is walking across the country to raise awareness of veteran suicide.

SIOUX CITY – His knees ache, his legs are heavy. But still, Navy veteran Tom Zurhellen keeps walking.

This past Sunday, the man from Poughkeepsie, New York, hobbled into Sioux City under the high, hot sun more than 1,500 miles from his starting point in Portland, Oregon. In an effort to call attention to and raise awareness about veteran suicide and homelessness, the Poughkeepsie Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 170 Commander has been on a journey since April 14 to walk across America. In total, between quiet towns high above the world in Wyoming and rusting Midwestern cities, Zurhellen's trek will span more than 2,800 miles. 

“When you find something you really care about ... I think this is the first thing [for me] that’s been a cause,” Zurhellen said. “Once you find that thing, I think you can make it into something really important in your life.”

Zurhellen, an associate professor of English at Marist College, created the VetZero organization, which hopes to help veterans of any age with issues such as homelessness and suicide. That’s when Zurhellen’s journey began.

Each day, he attempts to walk 22 miles – in commemoration for the 22 veterans that take their lives each day, a number that is now 20, according to data accumulated by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs in 2018.

Tom Zurhellen veteran suicide awareness

Tom Zurhellen of Poughkeepsie, New York, walks Monday along U.S. Highway 20 east of Sioux City, toward Fort Dodge, Iowa. Zurhellen, a Navy veteran, is walking across the country to raise awareness of veteran suicide.

Overall, the veteran support organization hopes to raise $40,387 – a number that signifies the average number of American veterans that are homeless each night, according to VetZero’s GoFundMe website. As of July 1, more than $20,000 had been raised.

“Tommy’s project was one the college wanted to support because it very much aligns with our institutional goal to advance the social good,” said Geoffrey Brackett, Marist College executive vice president. “His trip is designed to raise awareness about veteran issues — especially mental health support and engagement.”

Brackett said money raised by Zurhellen’s journey will be dedicated to the VFW post in Poughkeepsie.  

“Tommy, I believe, felt the need to engage with America himself, and very directly at that,” Brackett said. “(He) has a mythical understanding of America as a writer.”

Zurhellen’s travels, a part of a sabbatical from Marist, will culminate in his first memoir-esque book. He’s taking a break from reimagined Biblical tales – a trilogy of novels asking the question, “what if Jesus Christ was from Nazareth, North Dakota?” Now, Zurhellen is searching to answer the question, “can one person change the world?”

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Aalfs Manufacturing historic
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Capital Theater 1940-1959
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Badgerow Building
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Salvation Army
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Chesterfield

“I think the answer is going to be no, one person can’t change the world,” Zurhellen said. “But what they can do is inspire others to change the world together ... Here I am, out here every day, walking and doing my thing. But it’s not going to mean anything unless people care and people find out about it.”

And he has met people along the way, people like an aging Vietnam veteran on the top of a mountain – a Green Beret, or the individual that gave him a haircut for free. To Zurhellen, this is the core of his travels -- the people along the way.

And as he walks, he thinks of the stories they’ve told him.

That was when Zurhellen understood for the first time what the walk across the country truly meant. It wasn’t just for him. It wasn’t just to advocate for a voice to those who served this nation and continue to do so. Through the people he met, Zurhellen has become the keeper of stories, of truths that he’ll keep to understand what his journey has meant.

“I feel honored that somebody would entrust me with their story,” Zurhellen said. “You have this experience; you’re not going to give it up. Just knowing (those stories) exist I think is enough for people to know, we need to do a better job for our veterans.”

Speakout

How far would you be willing to walk to raise money for a worthy cause or draw attention to an issue? Sound off at facebook.com/SiouxCityJournal

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