A Beloit College alum is walking across the country to draw attention to two veterans' issues -- suicide and homelessness. Tom Zerhellen is an English professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He's spending his sabbatical walking from Portland, Oregon to Marist to promote his campaign. He stopped at Beloit College during his journey through Wisconsin, where he spoke with WNIJ's Guy Stephens about what led him to take on his cross-country challenge.
TZ: About two years ago, quite by accident, I was elected as the commander of my local Veterans of Foreign Wars or VFW post in Poughkeepsie, New York. That experience pretty much opened my eyes to how much our local veterans in the Poughkeepsie area really needed [support] in the areas of mental health, and also in financial matters [and] homelessness. And so that experience led me to believe I needed to do something really special to raise awareness on the issues of veterans’ mental health and veteran homelessness in America.
GS: Was there a reason to pick that particular route? Because it's pretty sparse in some of those parts of the country.
TZ: Well, now you tell me! You know, if I would have known this three months ago, I might have taken a different route. But Portland was the origin choice, because my old ship mate Paul, we were in the Navy together. He lives in Portland. I haven't seen him in many years. The route was a challenge. As you mentioned, sparseness of towns, but also elevation.
GS: I also understand that there were some weather issues.
TZ: Oh, yeah. Several snowstorms. The first one was in Pocatello, Idaho. I had to take a snow day. But then it kept snowing, so I couldn't take any more snow days. And I had to walk straight through it.
GS: Was there ever a point when you said, "This is just too crazy -- I should stop?" And why didn't you?
TZ: Almost every day. Almost every day that I'm walking, I hit a wall. I could easily go home. I'm not really homeless, you know. The thing that keeps me going is, you know, the pain I'm experiencing, there are thousands of veterans out there experiencing this pain every single day, through mental health issues and financial issues. So that's a big part of what just keeps me going. I know I can make it through the day. Whereas there are a lot of people in our country who don't think they can make it through the day.
GS: What would you say is most memorable, so far?
TZ: It's really been an eye-opening experience what you have to go through to be homeless in America. It's expensive. It's uncomfortable. And asking complete strangers for help is very, very hard. I've done it for the last three months, and I'm still not good at it -- if you want to say you're "good" at being homeless. The positive surprise that I've also taken away from this adventure so far is just the outpouring of support from complete strangers, even before they know what I'm doing with veterans. People stopping on the side of the road, asking me if I'm okay, and just talking to me. Being a New Yorker, I'm totally alien to complete strangers stopping you on the street and asking if you are okay. That happens every day. There's kindness between strangers. It's a really comforting thought.
GS: What are you hoping will -- really -- come out of this?
TZ: Well, this whole project started with a simple question that I asked myself, can one person change the world? Originally, being my positive self, I said, “Sure. One person can change the world. I'm going to prove it by crazily walking across the country.” But now that we're towards the end of the journey, I have to say, I believe that one person can’t change the world, because it takes more than one person really to do anything. So one person can affect change and get people motivated, get people more informed, perhaps. And that's our goal. We need this to become, you know, common knowledge that 22 veterans take their own lives every day and 40,000 of our heroes are homeless every day. And when that happens, you know, then we can see real change.
Zerhellen calls the veteran service project "VetZero" (as in reducing veteran suicides and homelessness to zero) He posts about his progress across the country, the campaign and related activities on VetZero's Facebook page.