A Blog From A Supporter

Charles has been helping us out the last few days. This blog is from him.

While most people were getting ready to bring in the New Year with friends and family or maybe some crazy trip to LA, Vegas or even Time Square to watch the ball drop, I was getting my house ready for two strangers I had never meet but would be supporting them with transportation, food, and shelter for the next 2 weeks.
I served in the Army National Guard from May 1998 – May 2007, I first joined the Arizona Army National Guard where I worked as a Fire Direction Specialist for an Artillery unit from 1998 – 1999. In 1999 I moved to Indiana and transferred to a local Army National Guard unit, the only problem was there were no Artillery units where I was living so I had to change my job to 11B Infantry. I was a gunner with an Infantry platoon from 1999 – 2001. I remember the day very well I was making a change from Alpha Company to Headquarters Company so I could deploy to Bosnia on September 11, 2001. I was deployed to Bosnia for a 6 month rotation during the summer of 2002 after returning home things went back to normal work, family and weekend drills. I had started my own plumbing company and things were going great for me, a new house, new cars and was due to get out of the National Guard in May of 2004 after serving 6 years. My unit was put on federal orders on May 1, 2004 for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. I was placed under a stop-loss but me being so stubborn I was not going to deploy on a stop-loss so I did the most rational thing I reenlisted for 3 more years. I did my time in Afghanistan for a year, I was 11C (Mortars) when I arrived in country and after a few months with my unit I was sent over to another unit to train the Afghan National Army how to use Russian Artillery. Coming home was rougher than I thought; I had a lot of anger, rode rage and had lost trust in everyone I knew who was not a veteran. I came home to a divorce, lost my business and my home so I quickly turned to alcohol to ease the pain.  I have had my fair share of hardships over the last 8 years but the one thing I never did was give up. Today I can look back at the struggles I have been through, no food, homeless and all around lost with everyday life. What comfort I have found has been in the form of helping other veterans with their challenges as I have overcome a majority of mine. To me it does not matter what branch of service what war you fought in or if you never say combat a veteran is a veteran no matter what. I am not writing this to talk about my service or my struggles with the VA system but a Facebook page I found back in June of 2013. It was just another day of me sitting on the computer doing nothing, when all of a sudden I find this page called Veterans Trek. Two Iraq Veterans that are planning on walking across the U.S. to raise awareness for PTSD and other veteran issues. I was all over this, sending the page to my friends and wishing I could do something to support them. My finances at the time were very limited and I did not have a lot of extra money but I had to do something. I contacted Tom and offered my home to them when they reached the small town I live in in Arizona. I offered the basics a place to sleep, eat and shower. When I made the offer it was all I could do to support them. I continued to watch their progress as they sent out requests for donations of item from sleeping bag and back packs and Go-Pro cameras for their Trek. I did not have the funds to help so I searched their site and found they wanted snake bite kits; they were not expensive so I ordered them 2 kits. I was proud I had gotten them something they need for their trek. I was still not fulfilled that I had done enough to help these two veterans walking from Milwaukee, WI to Los Angeles, CA. one night I saw a post on their Facebook page that they need people to store water for them along their route, again I wasted no time and sent my address to them to store the water. I received 2 cases of water in July 2013 but their trek was not to start until August 30, 2013. So I had been following their progress for 3 months before they started walking. After they started their trek I was watching their updates and following their progress daily, I want as far as trying to predict when they would arrive in my town. I marked my calendar for January 20, 2014 as the date I would finally meet these two veterans for the first time. I followed them through blisters, long days, sleeping in cemeteries, and winter storms in Colorado. December 14th they finally crossed into Arizona even though they were still over 300 miles from my house that was all I was talking about to friends and family.  December 18th was the first time I messaged them on Facebook and was actually starting to secure the opportunity to help them with their trek. December 30 I contacted them again as they had finally reached Williams, AZ about 100 miles from my house. With my finances in better order I wanted to provide as much support as possible for these two veterans who have been away from their families for over four months to support other veterans some they had meet along the way and some they may never meet. My mission was to pick them up on  December 31st treat them to a nice New Year’s Eve dinner, a place to sleep, shower and then drive them back to continue their walk. I would be repeating this process daily until they reach Needles California. I have to say it has been a blast helping Tom and Anthony out on their mission to help other veterans. By the time I bid them farewell in Needles, Ca I will have driven approx. 1,500 miles transporting them cooked them 13 meals and had 2 great weeks of visiting and spending time getting to know these guys. I have taken them to listen to a local band; arranged an interview with our local newspaper, 3 radio interviews and help them reach out to other groups on Facebook. Even though I will be saying goodbye in a few days and as much as I was able to help and support them with their trek I am far from done. I want to help try and make their arrival on the Santa Monica Pier on February 1st as big as I can make it. I will be making the trip in February to meet them at the end of the trek another 338 miles from my home. I have made some lifelong friends and I will continue to support Veterans Trek as long as I am able. Charles Black OEF 2004 -2005 For more information on Tom and Anthony from Veterans Trek and their mission to help other veterans you can find them at facebook.com/veteranstrek and http://www.veteranstrek.com

Thank you, Charles.

See you on the trail,
Anthony and Tom

Blog From A Friend

Today, Tom and I walked in almost 60 degree weather. Sorry to all those back home dealing with crappy, cold weather.
Today’s blog is written by another OIF Veteran.
           Veterans Helping Veterans  
It has been nearly 10 years now since Tom and I served together. Ten years, yet I can recall many memories of the long days we spent together in Iraq more vividly than I can what I did this past weekend. In those 10 years I can’t say that I have made closer friends than those forged under fire. With that said, after 10 years I still haven’t fully processed just what it was that we went through together, and the transformations that we all experienced as individuals.    For me, Veterans Trek encourages me to reflect. It urges me to not only look back to times of war, but to look at the person I became when I came home from the war. Each night that Tom and Anthony are on the road is a little reminder for me to be thankful for my blessings, and mindful of my fellow brothers in arms who may be in need.  We all struggle to reintegrate to civilian life. Because of the hardships of military life, because of everything we overcame to survive combat, because of all the days we sat on OP’s far from home and dreamed about the future when we would come home from the war, we expect civilian life to be somehow sweeter. When you get home and ETS sometimes reality does not add up to fantasy, and the hard facts of life can be hard to cope with.  When you struggle in the military and seek help it can be looked down upon. You can be called or labeled a shit-bag, or malingerer, for seeking out or requiring ongoing care. If you are undergoing medical separation from the armed forces peer and command judgments can be especially harsh. Coming home from a war only to begin a battle with PTSD, depression, or other veteran related issues is tough, but can be made even tougher when your superiors are not entirely supportive.  My friend and teammate, Ian, recently took his life after a long battle with both PTSD and depression, as well as a bitter separation from the military. Unfortunately, he is just one of the many veterans who tragically decide to end their lives early every single day. The way you perceive you are seen and accepted by your peers when you exit military service has a huge impact on your self-concept when you go to separate.   Treatment at medical holdover units prior to separation can be a tormenting and miserable purgatory for an ill or wounded veteran to undergo. I can only speak, of course, based on my personal experience of my close friends and comrades. I do believe, however, that this is a larger problem than a majority of the public may be aware of.  Another close friend and teammate of my second deployment, Ray, developed depression and anxiety upon returning home from our deployment, to the point that he was actually passing out from anxiety attacks. Unfortunately for both Ray and Ian, they were treated harshly and with suspicion by the command of our units and exited the military left with a bad taste in their mouths.     We do not have control of the culture of the military, or how service members are treated in various units. We do have a say, however, in the treatment that veterans receive upon separation from the military.  Personally speaking, navigating the VA system as a recently separated veteran was at times overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, the VA is there to turn to, and supports millions of veterans across the country. My own experience, dealing with both the Montgomery G.I. Bill and VA healthcare system is that there is a lot of red tape, and you have to be extremely patient.  While I tried to make full use of my benefits I often found myself at odds with the bureaucracy of the VA system. On many occasions the VA would schedule appointments for me without asking, sometimes over an hour’s drive from home, others at times that were simply not possible due to work and school.  One example was seeking help for ongoing back pain. Simply mentioning back pain to a doctor likely makes them cringe, as it can be terribly hard to diagnose, and tricky to treat. My doctor at the VA had no problem at all prescribing muscle relaxers, 800 mg ibuprofen, and Vicodin, month after month. At first, I didn’t have a problem with that line of treatment either, that was until I did have a problem. The Army docs started treating my back pain with muscle relaxers and painkillers as far back as 2005, which kept me in the fight quite well. My condition all of this time was never physically treated, merely masked.  I eventually weaned myself off of prescription drugs and began to treat my back pain with the help of a dear friend, Gonstead chiropractor, and Vietnam veteran, Dr. Joe. Dr. Joe operated riverboats during the Vietnam War, and became a chiropractor after the war. When I told him about my back pain and chronic headaches he urged me to come by his office to get my back checked out. After just a few adjustments my back was doing better, and my headaches were all but gone. Unfortunately, I was living on the G.I. Bill at the time, and didn’t have money for treatment. Dr. Joe, being himself a combat veteran, treated my back in exchange for whatever small amount I could afford.  Going back to the VA I shared my feelings about masking my symptoms with pills, shared about taking myself off of that line of treatment, and how much Gonstead chiropractic work had actually helped my pain. My doctor replied that he didn’t have the authorization to prescribe rehabilitative types of treatment, and said in his own words that his function at the VA was more of a “pill pusher.” In no way do I mean to knock my VA doctor. He is a kind, and honest man. He himself has lamented to me about the red tape of the VA, and I honestly believe that he is there to help veterans to the best of his ability. What we do need to consider is how to best improve veterans care to offer treatment that heals the mind and body, done so in a way that does not turn people off of or away from seeking treatment.   I think that getting a conversation started about how to improve helping veterans can only be a good thing. Looking for ways to make improvements in veteran care is not an attack on the VA or government, rather a mission to literally save the lives of our brothers in arms.  Tom, Anthony, thank you both for your continued efforts, and have a Happy New Year! You guys deserve it!   

Thanks for the support.

See you on the trail,
Anthony and Tom      

Both Tom and I hope all of you had a wonderful, relaxing, and fun-filled Christmas, wherever you may be. Tom and I spent Christmas in Flagstaff, AZ. Christmas Eve gave us the opportunity to Skype and Facetime with family. I was fortunate enough to Skype with my family as they opened gifts. It was great to see my daughter open her gifts and excitedly run around the living room with her new doll. She spent time reading a story to her new Elmo doll. It was fun to see and I’m glad I had the chance to be involved, even if it was via Skype from 2,000 miles away. Tom got to catch up with his girlfriend and experience, as best as he could, opening gifts through an electronic/internet based way. On Christmas Day, Tom’s mom and dad came to meet us. Their visit was the first time they’d seen Tom in 4 months, so I’m sure it was very special for them to spend Christmas with him. We were able to see some sights during their visit which we otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to see.

The other day, Tom and I walked to a laundromat to do our laundry. While there, I found a little brochure left for all those who have nothing but time while waiting for their clothes to be washed. The topic of the brochure was peace and why so many people struggle to find it. After reading it, I began to think about how a Veteran struggles with so much internal strife and how that finds its way into the Veteran’s world.

When we come home, we are looking at our world through a whole new set of eyes. We hear words differently, experience life differently, share our lives differently. Usually, those around us make as many adjustments to us as we do to them. For me, I always felt a bit out of place. The lens I used to see and experience the world was forever altered. This change created great upheaval in my life, both personal and professional. A lot of the upheaval stemmed not from the experiences I was having, but from my inability to communicate how I felt about what was happening around me. I felt powerless to influence my world and, by relation, my own life.

But what I’ve found out on this trip regarding that has changed my perspective. To have peace within one’s world, you must find peace in and with yourself. Peace, in a Veteran’s world, can be a tricky thing. Despite all of the experiences I’ve had in life, going to and experiencing war is by far the most influential. To go to war and come home and seek peace may sound natural. But it is very hard to do. When you fight for your life, everything you do after that becomes a fight. Every fight becomes more turmoil. Each new layer of turmoil makes it harder to find your way home, even when you’re physically there. Being physically present at home is NOT the same as being home. This walk, while taking us away from home, brings us home. It provides the opportunity to experience, for better, all the negativity that was created, fostered, and perpetuated by us in our own lives. But with each step we expel it. We have found that through this walk we are able to confront, in an honest way, those things we have struggled with. We sought help in the past and portions of everything we tried worked to a point. But taking these literal steps has allowed us to take all the previous help and sort through it in ways that work best for us.

Finding peace within yourself allows you to find peace in your world. Finding peace in your world allows one to bring peace to the world. We have been walking, not just for ourselves, but for others. We’ve walked to help Dryhootch. We’ve walked to help Veterans, the bulk of whom we’ve never met and may never meet. We’ve heard from several people that have told us how much our walk means to them. This is an example of peace within one’s self finding its way into the lives of others. It takes effort, sacrifice, and a willingness to be uncomfortable…all things a Veteran is acutely aware of. This is why I feel there is tremendous hope for those who struggle. With help from yourself and others, you possess the tools required to find peace within yourself. It is hard. It may take counseling, medication, or some other form of intervention. But, the key is within you. It always has been and will continue to be.

When we struggle, we often look around for help and it can be very discouraging when the help you need isn’t immediately apparent. It can be discouraging when someone says, “Do it yourself” or “Just try harder.” I am not saying that at all. We relied on support our whole lives and certainly while in the military. Everything we know was taught to us either through models or through trial and error. It is at this time when our world is completely upside down that we have to be honest with ourselves and determine what we need and where we can get it. Maybe it’s at the VA. Maybe it’s at Dryhootch. Maybe it’s in AA meetings or with a therapist. But, it has to begin from a decision within to want to help ourselves. Without that decision to find peace within, we cannot expect peace around us.

When I was struggling, my struggles extended to my family and friends. At some points, people avoided me because they didn’t want to deal with my drama or I had exhausted them. When I chose to change, I made a decision to seek the peace within myself necessary to bring peace to them. It was the best decision I made. Still, making the decision is not enough. You will hurt, you will make decisions to leave some people and situations behind. But, all of those decisions are made with peace for yourself at the forefront. Once that step is taken, peace will find you. Surroundings change, people change. It will take time and effort, but it is so worth it.

Tom and I have said, repeatedly, that Vietnam Veterans have been the most influential Veterans for us to seek our own peace. For decades they struggled with personal and professional chaos. They lost jobs, families, friends, and time. They never gave us advice. They taught through their stories of experience. I am 30 years old. Tom is 29. We sat, listened, and discussed the lives of Veterans who, in their 60’s and 70’s, were just beginning to seek the peace that they desired for decades. This motivated us to seek it now, rather than waiting until decades went by and lessons were discarded. Tom and I have the utmost respect for Vietnam Veterans as their struggles have taught us about what we can and should do now. Without their help and support, we would be wanting peace instead of working for it.

In 2 days, a new year begins. If you have been struggling, now is as good a time as ever to try and change. Go to a Vet Center or the VA. Go to Dryhootch. Seek out the resources in your area. It is the first step in finding the peace you seek…the peace that will change your life and those around you.

See you on the trail,

Anthony and Tom

A Great Christmas Message

Now, it’s Christmas Eve. Christmas, to me, is a time not only to be with family. It’s a time to reflect, be grateful, be happy for the year you’ve had, and prepare for the next. This blog was written by a Veteran who heard about us and sent a short message explaining how what we’re doing has been influential in her life. I asked if she’d write more and we would use it as our blog. Here is what she wrote:

I served 2 military deployments to Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. After my second deployment I had a very hard time readjusting to regular life. I was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after the return from my second deployment, but I felt as if I had it under control. I did not tell anyone about it because I was still in the guard and did not want to look weak to my soldiers. I have dealt with my PTSD on my own for the past 4 years; I was continually telling myself I had it under control but the symptoms continued to flare month after month. After adding the veterans trek to my Facebook, I followed them closely by reading their blogs and their status updates. The Veterans Trek has motivated me to seek counseling for my PTSD. I learned from the blogs, especially the ones from the mountains in Colorado, that I am not the only one experiencing these symptoms and that I should not be afraid to get help. My first session was last week and I finally feel as if I am headed down the right road. Thank you Veterans Trek!  

Thank you for that. It helps us as we move forward.

If you’re struggling or you know someone who is, please help them. Our lives are too valuable to allow complacency or a feeling of “I hope it’ll get better” to get in the way. You aren’t weak. You aren’t a coward. You aren’t undeserving. You are too important to let the way you think other people will think deter you from getting what you need.

Merry Christmas,
Anthony and Tom

Christmas On The Road

While we’re still a few days away, both Tom and I wish to say Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you all. We’ve been away from home for just under 4 months now. In that time, we’ve been privileged to have met so many wonderful people who have welcomed us, fed us, supported us, and so on. And, we have had tremendous donation support. To date, we are now around 65,000 raised for Dryhootch. You have done 100% of that. Christmas this year will be spent in Flagstaff, AZ. New Years…somewhere between here and Kingman. Hopefully, we will reach LA 6 weeks from now.

We got this message in our Facebook today:
Hey! I just wanted to thank you guys for everything you have done! I used to be in the Wisconsin national guard and I deployed twice. You have encouraged me to seek counseling for my PTSD after battling for the past 4 years! I had my first session last week and I feel I am finally on a good road! I give the credit to your trek for me finally getting this taken care of! Y’all are incredible and doing a great thing! Stay safe! Thank you again!

That’s an awesome Christmas present right there.

When I was in Iraq on my first deployment, I spent Christmas away from home. At the time, I had been married for 5 months and had been in country for just shy of 2 months. I was 21 years old. When I went to the DFAC on Christmas Eve, we had a nice meal. Santa was there with his elves. You could take a picture with him and have it sent home. I remember walking back to my trailer after dinner, maybe a 10 minute walk, in the cold. Yes, for those who are unaware, Baghdad and Iraq, in general, get cold. While walking back I felt pretty bad. I missed home and felt like I was letting my family down by not being home. I remember thinking that I should be home with my wife on our first Christmas together. My roommate and I watched some movies and called it a night. After all, we had a mission in the morning. I tried to put the season somewhere very far away.

Christmas in Iraq is weird. I can’t really put it another way. You’re somewhere where all the things you see at home reminding you of the season are present. You’re constantly reminded that you’re not present where you wish you were and where many at home just wish, for 5 minutes, you could be. On base, in TOCs, in the PX, everywhere, there are holiday related items. People put up little Christmas trees. My family sent me my “gifts.” I had a DCU stocking hung on my wall (not really hung with care). During the holidays, you surround yourself with people you want to be around and who want to be around you. In Iraq, in your mind, you know if they could, everyone around you would be thousands of miles away from you and where you are. Yourself included. It’s Christmas and we’re here…doing this…and everyone I love back home is there doing that. When you try not to think about it, you see the tinsel loosely hanging on a tree in the DFAC and you’re reminded of what time it is. Somewhere in you, at least in me, you make a decision to stop thinking about it. It weakens your ability to be the best you can be at your job. So, you make a decision that this Christmas doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Same with Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Christmas is a Wednesday. When Wednesday comes, it’s Wednesday not Christmas.

The next day for me, on Christmas, we went and drove around in the rain and mist. We parked our humvees in muddy trash fields on the outskirts of a village outside Baghdad in our AO. We didn’t dismount. We sat. We waited. We wondered if we’d be allowed back in in time for Christmas dinner. We talked in our humvees wondering just what in the hell we were doing at that moment. We joked we earned a new CIB…the Christmas Infantry Badge. All the while, the rain dripped down. I remember watching the rain gather and fall off the rubber gasket surrounding the rim of the gunner’s hatch. The rain combined with the dust and dirt to make mud on the platform in front of the spare ammo. Christmas mud. This was Christmas in Iraq. Our battalion commander came around and went Humvee to Humvee. He wanted to give us Christmas cookies his wife had sent. We nibbled on them. The taste of a Christmas cookie just isn’t there, just isn’t the same, when it isn’t Mom’s and you’re eating it in a Humvee parked in a muddy, trash filled field within eye sight of where you’ve seen an IED go off on members of your platoon. I resigned myself to the fact that at that very moment, my family at home was waking up to Christmas day in Wisconsin and I was waiting for some violence to pop off in a muddy field in Iraq. Christmas juxtaposition.

We, to the best of my recollection, sat in that same spot for a long time. Inevitably, your thoughts wander and go to home. Inevitably, the soldier in you tries to hide it. Then, the soldier in you tries to act like being where you are at that moment is just the way it is. You allow the disappointment to enter and remain and you try to shut it out as a casualty of your sense of duty. It’s the price of doing business. For as bad as you wish it wasn’t, you accept it. You don’t accept it because you want to. You accept it because all those around you seem to be accepting it and it is your obligation to them to be in the moment so when shit kicks off, you are there, not 7,000 miles away.

The hard part for me was when I came home and was re-exposed to “traditional” Christmas. At that point, Christmas meant nothing to me. Neither did any other holiday or birthday or anniversary. Why would they? I had found a way that was useful to me to stop feeling these emotions. In Iraq, not feeling or thinking about home or friends or loved ones is useful. It is a way to cope. This coping mechanism allowed me to be present, do my job, and disassociate emotion from experience. Just stop thinking, stop feeling, stop. Do your job, do what’s expected, do. That is the formula for holiday mission prep. That is the formula for any day’s mission prep. That becomes the prep for everyday…even when home.

Now, I’m home. We are home. We are in the United States. We can be around families. We can eat mom’s cookies. Hell, we can watch bowl games while opening gifts while we eat, while we talk, while we do whatever we want. And, if all that isn’t enough, no port a johns with inane, bullshit scribblings to entertain you this year. The one thing I know I’ve wanted more than anything since 2005 has been the ability to enjoy those moments at home, feel an appropriate emotion. I have met a lot of people who wish and want that same thing for themselves. The experience of Christmas or a holiday in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever sucks. It just does. But, those experiences are memories. In 2 days, you have the chance to make a new memory. Make it real. Remember Christmas away and how badly you wanted to be home? You’re there. You made it. Make the most of it. You deserve it. Don’t let the pain of the past dictate the possibilities of the future. Don’t let every holiday be spent in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Somewhere, right now, there are men and women experiencing the holidays away from home. Mothers and fathers are separated from children. Loved ones at home are planning for festivities. Soldiers are planning missions. Separated by thousands of miles, their minds, hearts, and emotions are together. They are thinking that next year they will be together again. And THAT is what they want for Christmas this year…for it to be Christmas next year.

See you on the trail (you bring the mistletoe),
Anthony and Tom

A Blog From A Supporter

One of our supporters, Eileen, asked if we could walk in memory of her nephew today. Today would have been his birthday. I asked Eileen if she would write our blog today in memory of her nephew. This is what she shared with us:

December 19, 2013
Hi Anthony and Tom.  I hope you had a restful night last night.  Just got up myself and found your text asking if I would write for your blog.  I was somewhat hesitant, as you both write so beautifully.  I wiped a tear from my eye and told myself I need to do this.  First, thank you both for the gift you are giving me this Christmas, the gift of Hope.  Thanks too, to both of your families for supporting your journey.    I have so many thoughts running through my mind right now.  I will attempt to put them together in some way so people reading your blog want to listen as much as I want to share my families’ story.     Stephen is the reason I met you both.  I wish I could thank him today for helping me make the acquaintance.  Sgt. Stephen J. Keyes USMC, my nephew would be 27 today. When Stephen died this past February I was made aware of a horrible statistic.  On February 20th 2013, Stephen became one of 22 veteran suicides that happen each and every day.  After Stephens’ funeral, after seeing some of his wounded warrior comrades and wondering how I could live part of his life out, I had to do something.  I had to do something or Stephens’ life would be over.    Fast forward to August of this year; I read about Anthony and Tom in the newspaper.  This is it I told my husband, I want to walk with these guys in spirit the whole 2700 miles.  I want to do whatever I can.  I know Stephen would probably say these guys are crazy, but he would support them every step of the way too.  After emailing Tom and Anthony and asking if I could physically walk with them the first day, I told them I would raise $20 per mile for the first 20 miles.  I did that and then some.  My family knows when I get passionate about something I mean it.  I prepared for the walk by making my own “Veterans Trek” shirt.  I did a few long walks and even managed a 6 mile walk before the big day.  I arrived at the Veterans Memorial on 8/30/2013 and the first thing I saw after spotting Anthony and Tom was their rucks.  My immediate thought on what would be the hottest day of our summer was, “holy crap”.           “I don’t have a clue”. I don’t have a clue.  I have no idea what it is like to serve in the armed forces, no idea the vivid images consuming a soldiers mind when they try to sleep.  I can go to a Milwaukee Brewers or Milwaukee Bucks game and not become overwhelmed with anxiety when I sit among a crowd of thousands.  If I had a fellow comrade die next to me or become severely injured, I could never imagine it.  Stephen saw many things when he served in Afghanistan and was part of the humanitarian efforts in Haiti.  There are many who have and will continue to serve.  I will never have an understanding of how that will change those soldiers’ lives or how it changed Stephens’s life or Anthony and Tom’s lives.   To Anthony and Tom and anyone with PTSD and your families, I hope your lonely moments will be few and far between.  I hope the pain in your lives will be a reason to live more and die less.  I hope you will reach out for help and I hope when you reach, a hand will be there to hold you as long as you need. On a personal note to Stephen:  I will be here for you and your mom and dad and Patrick, I will always carry some of who you are with me, until I meet you again to play “Just Dance”. Do me a favor, if you are reading over my shoulder Stephen.  Take Grandpa, Ryan and Kaitlin to breakfast and get your military discount.   On a personal note to Anthony and Tom:  I love your music posts.  You guys have great taste in music.  Even though you are walking, could you post a link to “I Drive Your Truck” by Lee Brice?   You guys are awesome.  Thanks for all that you are doing and have done for Dryhootch and Veterans.      Walk on, Peace Eileen  

Thank you, Eileen, for sharing your story and for your support.

Anthony and Tom

Hopefully A Bit More Clear

Along this walk, lots of people have shared their stories with us. As we’ve said many times, it is one of the greatest aspects of this walk. From time to time, the stories we hear are absolutely heartbreaking. More often than not, they are inspiring. The people telling us their stories have overcome many hardships, some self imposed, others imposed from outside. Regardless, they don’t give up despite the discouragement.

When I write these blogs, my main goal is to include as much as I can to give everyone who follows us a chance to know us and, in some ways, experience this walk, too. We’ve always appreciated the support we’ve received. It is all of you making it happen. Yes, we have walked a lot of miles, but you’re the ones doing the hard work.

I’d like to take a chance to answer some of the messages we’ve received about one of the topics, the VA. Neither Tom nor I are anti VA. Both Tom and I have used services from the VA. I’ve gone for primary care, talked to a counselor, used VA and government benefits for school and buying a home. I appreciate the hardworking care providers at the VA. In countless interviews, including with the VA, I’ve said that. In my work with Veterans, I have encouraged them to go and have worked very closely with several people at the VA who I trust are there for the right reasons. When I haven’t been able to find help from community resources, I have encouraged VA intervention.

It isn’t the people of the VA that I take issue with. It is the system in which they operate that is frustrating. When I say Veteran to Veteran is the only way things will happen, I am coming from a place where I think, “Who could better provide aid than someone who has been there?” Recently, to meet that need, the VA has been hiring more and more Veterans to support a peer to peer effort. This is a great step that answers the demand from the Veteran community. Daily, Veterans receive needed care and assistance for medical, psychological, housing, and employment needs. These are all great things. With any organization, there will always be problems.

But acknowledging problems will happen is not an excuse for their continued existence. Simply saying shit happens isn’t a valid reason for allowing the issue to perpetuate or grow.

Lately, we’ve received many messages from people raising concerns that our message about the VA was too harsh, too critical and that offering the criticism without some concrete solutions does nothing but discourage people from seeking help, especially when the VA may be the closest or only resource around.

I cannot help if you take it that way. All I can do is try to clarify my point. Simply put, Veterans in this country are struggling and I don’t believe enough is being done at the community, state, or federal levels. This is a feeling stated by me, but built on my experience working with Veterans, talking with Veterans, and listening to Veterans and their families.

The VA is the biggest bat in the game. You may think it’s unfair to single them out, but they lead the way as the arm of government dedicated solely to Veteran care. As such, they are poised to do the most, offer the most, help the most. The Secretary of the VA is a cabinet level position in government. He oversees an agency that spends billions of dollars on care for Veterans. The VA can do great things. Despite all of these facts illustrating their authority, abilities, means, and desires all of the problems still remain.

My call for a community based approach is not an Us vs. Them mentality. Rather, it’s a call to answer the claims that the VA makes themselves of an overwhelming workload and an increasing Veteran population and a need to work more closely with community agencies. If you’re unable or unwilling to seek care at the VA, the community level is where it has to be. When the VA is overwhelmed and you need help, you turn to an entity that can help, be they organization or individual. The need doesn’t go away.

Working together, VA, organizations, and individuals can influence real change. However, frustration with one or more should not motivate you to quit the search for help.

All that said, I stand firm in what I said before: Political leadership is failing the Veteran and the families. Providing money for programs doesn’t educate or raise the collective consciousness. People learn from the time they’re babies from models. We learn how to do a number of tasks, learn manners, work ethic, etc from our models. Our government leaders should be our strongest models. My claim that because they rarely serve or have children who serve leads to indifference of Veteran needs is my opinion. But, I don’t see them modeling anything genuine for Veteran care, that’s all. That indifference can and will be duplicated just like good attitudes being contagious.

So, hopefully, I’ve answered some concerns and set the record straight. I’m not apologizing for failures. I’m not telling anyone not to go to the VA. I am saying that in the military, regardless of rank or branch or Guard or Reserve status, you are held to the highest standards of conduct and job performance. Hell, I remember being told in Iraq that we were ambassadors for our Nation and that everything we did would be scrutinized by leaders and citizens at home, as well as the Iraqi people. Given the standards that we met and exceeded, it is not unreasonable that those charged with this phase of the Veteran experience meet and exceed the highest standards, too. That’s reciprocity and not being a weak link. That’s the charge.

With that, Tom and I will continue to make our way down the road. This section has been especially frustrating with the roadblocks we’ve faced. We’ve had to take rides to get us into positions where we could safely continue. Our goal of reaching LA is coming closer to reality. Our goal of raising 100,000 for Dryhootch is currently around 64,000. Remember, what we raise helps a community based agency who works with the VA, but has needs in order to achieve its goal of helping Veterans at the community level through peer to peer help.

Soon, Christmas will be upon us. I spent 1 Christmas in Iraq and another home on leave from Iraq. This one, however, will be my first away from my daughter– she turns 2 in January. It’ll be tough to be away, but not as tough as those who will be in Afghanistan or other bases around the world. The separation one feels at this time can be amplified by the emotion of missing special holiday moments. That said, if you live near a family influenced by military separation right now, please reach out to them. They may need nothing, but it can’t hurt to ask. They’ll appreciate it and the service member can rest easier knowing people in his or her community are acting as agents of help, not just advocates for it.

See you on the trail,
Anthony and Tom