Some Thoughts From NM-AZ

Ahhh….Arizona! We’ve made it into our 6th state on this 7 state trek. Before I get too far into the blog, a quick recap of New Mexico. We got here 8 days ago. As you know, we had to get a ride from southern Colorado as the weather had flipped and made our walk impossible to go as planned. Not content to quit, we rode to Albuquerque with an OIF Veteran we met in Colorado. We picked up from there.
In Albuquerque, we had the pleasure of meeting a great family who had us over for dinner. They fed us well and were able to gather some much needed gift cards for us, as well as invite some of their friends over who donated to us so we could buy food and water and all the other things two trekkers need. One of their friends, Al, a Marine Veteran, helped us out with dinner the next night and provided us a ride past the reservation when we were told travel through there was not permitted.
We trekked to Grants where we met an awesome American Legion post, post 80 to be exact. For 3 nights, they fed us, sheltered us, and carted our tired butts back to Grants for a place to sleep. They also arranged for places for us to stay for the next couple hundred miles. Thank you to Arron, Larry, Fish, Tina, and all those there who greeted us, made us feel welcome, and treated us as one of their own.
Right now, though we walked into Arizona, we are in Gallup, NM. Two members of the Legion here, Dan and Bill, have arranged a place to stay and meals. So when we’re done walking, we can call them and they bring us back. Tomorrow morning, they’ll drop us off where we finished today and we’ll just keep walking. A warm room is always preferred to a cold rock. Thanks to those in Gallup who are making this possible.
Now, on to something we’ve been thinking about. If you follow our Facebook, you will have seen some questions posted the last few days. We ask those questions not because we’re bored and just want to ask, but because we are truly interested in what you think. This whole trek, we’ve met Veterans, families of Veterans, and non-Veterans who have fed us and sheltered us. We always ask them about their experiences, good and bad, with the VA, other Veterans, and so on. We are interested to learn from as many people as possible. Each perspective provides a learning experience for us to consider. Sometimes, the responses we get parrot our own thoughts. Sometimes, we get lessons and perspectives we never considered. It is one of the most remarkable parts of this journey.
One common theme that comes up is disgust with the VA and the lack of help our Veterans and their families are receiving. Far too often we hear how the VA is failing and these failures are adding to the substance abuse, suicide, and other negative experiences people are dealing with. Here is the conclusion I’ve drawn from all I’ve heard so far. Remember, this is just my take.

When we joined the military, regardless of branch or Guard or Reserve status, we did NOT give up being people with minds or emotions. Essentially, we leased ourselves to the government and nation for a given period of time. We were contractually obligated to fulfill our duties and we did as much because of OUR individual senses of duty, loyalty, and selflessness. We ceded portions of ourselves, our individual freedoms, for a while, because that’s what the military demands. We suspended our ability to choose. We did not give it up for life.

We did not cede our internal power.

Our internal power is what gives us the ability to make choices that WE want. We gave some of our freedom up, willingly, but we never gave ourselves up. What we are is sentient beings capable of perceiving, evaluating, deciding, and acting on our conclusions. That has never changed. As a matter of fact, I feel Veterans are far better tuned for perception because we have seen, experienced, evaluated, and adapted to more than many. As a result, our conclusions, while subjective, are based on experiences that have breadth and depth beyond our peers. Every experience we have adds to our knowledge of the world, environment, and situation we find ourselves in.

Feeling this, I am confused as to why we keep making the same mistake. We are able to perceive and evaluate. And our perceptions and evaluations about the VA and like agencies are the same. Why do we continue to choose to give a free pass to our leaders who have, are, and will continue to fail us so miserably? If they were in the military (That would never happen because they’re better than us. True service to their country is beneath them. Don’t believe me? Go ask them and draw your own conclusion.) they would’ve been demoted, article 15ed, and probably had the shit kicked out of them by their peers. Why? Because the duties they are charged with, namely, oversight of our care, are not a priority. And what happened when you were charged with a mission or objective in the military and you chose to blow it off? Right.

We never gave our power away. We never gave up being able to choose. Yet, here we sit, feeling as though we have no power and no choice to better our position. We have all the power and all we have to do is choose to demonstrate that power.

In Grants, the Legion members said we, as Veterans, need to do for one another. Help each other, take care of each other, watch out for each other. We will not receive what we need from government. We will never get our leadership (I use that term loosely as they are not leaders, they are bosses, and there is a big difference) to see us as worthy of their effort. We are shit to them. But we aren’t that way to each other. Veterans help one another. We did in service and in combat. Now, we have to do it at home. The uniform is off, the duty that uniform required never goes away.

We are the true keepers of Veteran care. Veteran to Veteran. Veteran family to Veteran family. Expect nothing more.

If you are ashamed to seek help because you’re hurting and think no one understands or you think they’ll think you’re weak, talk to another Veteran. You’ll find a receptive ear and a helpful hand. If you’re struggling with substance abuse or dependence, I guarantee you you’re not alone and you are worthy of help and care. As Veterans, we owe it to one another. If you own a business or are in charge of hiring, put the word out you’re looking for a Vet to hire. If you feel no one understands and never will, you are mistaken.

Don’t let the poor examples our “leader-bosses” provide of what care means make you turn from what you need. You have the power in you to choose. Choose what is right for you. Sometimes those choices are going to hurt. Sometimes those choices might mean the end of unhealthy friendships or acquaintances, but they’re the choices that have to be made. But do not be discouraged by the incompetence and indifference shown by our leaders. There are many Veterans who have been where you are and want nothing more than to help you back to where you deserve to be.

See you on the trail,
Anthony and Tom

So Here Is What Happened Today

Tom and I left where we were staying last night with the expectation that we could walk on our plotted route. While walking down the road, a nice woman stopped and asked where we were going. We showed her our map and explained our route. She warned us, very kindly, that we were on reservation land and that it wasn’t a good idea to walk down there. She explained the reservation police would find us as they were always patrolling. We explained there was no other way except to walk on the interstate. The frontage road to the interstate ended in a few miles and there was no identifiable route that linked with it. Again, very politely, she explained that it wasn’t the best idea. We walked a bit more down the road and were spotted by other reservation residents who looked at us a bit quizzically and saw a sign stating that we were on reservation land and that without prior written consent from the tribal council we would be stopped and prosecuted.
Now, in a bit of a pickle, we called and asked a police officer we met for advice. He said walking shouldn’t be an issue. I asked him, “What about you coming here to pick us up tonight to take us to a place to stay as we planned?” He responded that would be a real problem.
So, we turned around and walked back. We made our way to an interstate travel center, bought maps, and asked what our options were. Both maps indicated no route around other than the interstate. The only option we were given was to walk on the interstate which, for us, is not an option. I know it’s illegal where we’re from and in the states we’ve passed through. At the travel stop, some people said it was illegal and some said it wasn’t. All I know is that neither Tom nor I are comfortable walking down an interstate where you are one texting while driving incident from being a red spot on the road.
On our walk so far, we’ve had a couple close calls with motorists. Usually, and I mean no offense by this, it was old ladies driving big pick ups. They’d cross the white line onto the rumble strips as they approached us and come near enough for us to feel a fast breeze as we straddle hopped out of the way. Most of those incidents happened in Nebraska.
So, what we’re doing, to respect the people of the reservation and avoid the I40 mess, is to go around. We’ll go up to the end of the reservation and keep walking from there.
It is what it is. Really no choice in the matter.

We’ve Had To Make A Tough Decision

I’m going to be very real with you all.

As we said last night, the conditions in this area have changed. Just a short time ago, as a matter of fact just days ago, I walked in short sleeves. A few weeks ago, I walked in long underwear and shorts. If I tried that now, I’d be SOL in a few blocks. Tom and I had a pretty long discussion last night and again this morning. We looked at the weather here and the next couple weeks worth of projections. The outlook was not good.

You have to understand, neither Tom nor I are intimidated to walk in 0 degree weather during the day. We’d prefer to not (what sane person would), but if that is what it is, then we’re down. We are worried about those temps, however, with nowhere to go at night. Walking all day leaves you a sweaty mess, even in the cold. Your clothes hold that sweat. Then, you try to sleep in a bag, cold and wet, in the middle of nowhere. That is a recipe for disaster.
So, our decision is this: we are taking a ride out of the mountains. Tomorrow, an Iraq vet we met on the trip is going to pick us up and take us to Albuquerque. This allows us to get out of the mountains and keep walking. The night time temps are still cold and the stretches in between towns are still far. That said, it isn’t 0 or below at night. This allows for Tom and I to sleep outside if necessary and it not be 0 or below. The gear we have is OK, but it isn’t going to protect us from negative temps without a place to go at night.

People have brought up the idea that we explicitly said we wanted to do this route because it was hard and that this trip would demonstrate a person’s ability to overcome. Trust me, it is hard and I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far dealing with all this trek has thrown at us. One aspect of this trip, for us, is learning to take control over your own life even when conditions outside your control mount against you. For a long time, I felt very powerless in my life. After Iraq, nothing brought me happiness, nothing made me feel fulfilled or like I was doing anything worth anything. I drank to black out or pass out because my mind would not stop. I made stupid, foolish decisions that hurt me, friends, and my family because I couldn’t feel any emotion except anger. After that, all I felt was guilt and regret because I knew I was making the wrong choices. Then, I did it again. Why? I think because I felt like feeling good wasn’t an option for me, that I didn’t do enough or didn’t do things well enough to feel good. So, despite what others would claim was reality, I only saw the complete negative in me.

This trek has made me reevaluate that. One of the messages the military imparts is the need for adaptation. Conditions change. Missions change several times while your executing them. This trip has given me an opportunity to see how much control I do have and how adaptable I can be. Every day is a whole new set of circumstances. Often, we know where we’re going but have no idea what to expect when we get there. Will we have a place to stay? Can we find supplies? Every step is an adaptation on the trip. Every step is an adaptation towards success in my life.

The trek has demonstrated how capable we are. The trek has given us the chance to reevaluate our position in life. We can’t control the weather, but we can control ourselves. We can’t guarantee our safety, but we don’t have to put ourselves in positions where we jeopardize our wellbeing. What we’ve come to learn is that this trip means a lot to a lot of people. Hopefully, people can see that one aspect of this trip is understanding that YOU can make the best decision for you. You have to make the decision, no matter how disappointing it might be, to put yourself in the best position for success. On our Facebook, someone said that it is the completion of the mission that is important. That is so true. Without the chance to complete the mission, you find yourself regretting circumstance. It becomes a, ” Well, I could’ve completed the mission, but…” scenario. The decision to accept help when it is needed allows us to complete the mission, despite the change, and still look ourselves in the mirror and say ” Well, I could’ve quit the mission, but…”

The decision to lose some miles is disappointing. The decision to assert yourself and do what’s right for you is encouraging. It means we’ve learned something about ourselves…that beating yourself up, whether emotionally or physically, is not worth the effort of being honest with yourself and saying this is what I need to be successful for myself. It means that we’re breaking out of the acceptance of the bullshit we’ve carried for years. It means we’re finally allowing ourselves to see a situation from a position of influence and not of how influence will impact us. It means for me a change of self image and self worth. It’s like the opposite of depression. You have to understand that prior to this walk, I would’ve done whatever, for better or worse on me, because I just did not care about myself and didn’t feel I deserved to feel any better. This trek has brought me to a point where I believe I do have some value and can see, for the first time in a long time, that I am capable of changing my circumstances.

A friend I spoke with today said that this decision puts an asterisk next to this trek. If that’s the case for some, then so be it. I’d rather it be on this trip than my life. Stopping now would be an asterisk on life… A life that could have been lived, but a choice was made not to. The other day, Tom and I hiked up a mountain. I stood on the edge and looked out on the valley and prairie below. Hulking cattle were tiny black dots that looked like grains of sand sliding on the smooth surface of the yellow plains below. Cars carried people somewhere fast as they cut back and forth through the curves. A person we met on this trip, Wolf Walker, told us to feel the wind, feel the sun, experience life and the supreme creation around us. I closed my eyes. I felt the cool, thin air turn to wind and whip through my beard. I felt the delicate warmth of the late November sun on my face. I just breathed with my eyes closed for several seconds. I opened my eyes and saw a whole new world in front of me. There is no asterisk in that. I felt something real for the first time in a long time.

Wolf Walker, talked to us about power. You hold your power and you lose it by choice, when you let someone or some circumstance take it from you. You give away your power when you let someone else’s ideas, wants, or desires choose your course for you. Lives and experiences are shared, not controlled, unless you cede control by your choice. We have chosen to not allow circumstance to take control over us. Rather, we choose to see things for what they are and be honest with ourselves. Letting someone’s criticism or desire for us to do something as they feel we should, without understanding our position, would be ceding that power.

This trip was never intended to be a demonstration of how tough we are. For instance, I’m a big fat guy, not particularly active anymore. I joked several times before we left I thought some may donate just to see if I could move my mass from WI to CA. I thought by moving my heft I could motivate some who feel life is too much to move their ass and not waste their time like I did. I left the better part of my 20s behind because I didn’t feel like I deserved any better. This trek has 3 goals: raise awareness of issues plaguing Veterans and their families, raise funds for Dryhootch– a community based organization that tries every day to serve Veterans where they are, and for Tom and I, on a personal level, to address the bullshit that has influenced every single second of our lives for the past several years. Every decision we make on this trip is meant to further those 3 goals.

This decision is difficult because we are aware of the expectations placed on us. We have been encouraged by the number of people who have shared their encouragement for us and have not lost faith in us or our trek because of this. We have done our best and will continue to do our best. The distance we have left is about 1,000 miles, or the distance from Milwaukee to Colorado. We still have a long way to go and still will have many obstacles in front of us. You can expect that we’ll continue to do our best and make LA.

If you’re in the minority and think we’re quitters or taking the easy way, go do what you probably did in the military and go fill sandbags while everyone else goes outside the wire and puts themselves out there knowing the risk of failure.

For what seems to be the majority, thank you for all your support and encouragement from day one until the day this trek is over. I’m not trying to sound emotional, but your help pushes each step when every second to quit is one second in front of you.

See you on the (amended) trail,
Anthony and Tom

I’ve Always Said I Prefer Cold, But…

Over the course of this trip, we’ve had a number of obstacles to overcome. In the beginning, our minds were willing and motivated, but our bodies slowed us down under the intense heat and humidity that was present in Wisconsin. We adjusted and walked on. Despite preparing for the trek by walking for months, our feet became blistered to the point where every step was a painful reminder of the nightmare the bottoms of our feet had become. We got past that obstacle and moved to the next.
Later on, as we moved from Nebraska to Colorado, we were warned that our adjusted route would put us in some precarious situations where food, water, and help–should we need it– would be hard to come by. So, we adjusted again and found a way to safely trek on knowing that soon enough REAL weather would find us.

It has arrived.

Here in Colorado right now, while the snow isn’t too bad, the temperatures are very cold. Frigid, dangerous temperatures have found us. Despite our best efforts to move as expeditiously as possible, the season has caught up to us. Tomorrow is a high of 4 degrees. The low is -3. I could list the next week of temperatures, but all you need to know is it doesn’t get much better.
People have begun to inquire as to whether or not we will stop and let the weather pass. This isn’t really an option. We will press on as best we can. As anyone who lives in a wintry part of the country knows, once winter comes, it tends to stay. Simply waiting it out isn’t doable as we can’t stay at a hotel or someone’s house indefinitely. We have to trek on.
We will do our best and will be smart. It isn’t walking during the day that concerns us so much, it is being out at night. We are at a point in the journey where we have long stretches to walk. In the beginning, we would have 20 to 30 miles between towns, but it was 70 to 80 degrees and we had 12 plus hours of daylight. Those conditions have gone. In the beginning, we could and did walk 12 hours a day sometimes to reach the next town. Those conditions are not currently present. Because of this, we will have to be realistic and use common sense instead of the “infantryman hubris” that, at times, propelled us forward. You have to understand, it is dark by 5 now. That means, if you have to, you have to find a place to sleep by like 3:30. You don’t want to be searching in the dark. It is amazing how cold it gets here in the dark. Hell, in a shadow or shade it feels bone chilling sometimes.
As we proceed from southern Colorado through northern New Mexico, there will be fewer people, fewer resources, and fewer opportunities to be comfortable at the end of a day of walking. This requires increased help. If you live in or are familiar with people in those areas, it would be much appreciated if you’d email us at veteranstrek@gmail.com and inquire on our route to see if we’re going in the direction of those you know and if those people would be willing to shelter us for an evening or 2 depending on the circumstances.
In the beginning and to date, we have been extraordinarily blessed by the number of people who have invited us into their homes, paid for a room for us, fed us, and made certain we were OK. Hopefully, we didn’t use all that up.

It would be a lie to say that I’m not more than a bit concerned with this next stretch. Looking out the window as I write this, I see snow flakes falling. I can’t even see the mountains due to the clouds. A 2 block walk today caused ice to form in my beard. All of these conditions have made Tom and I do one thing: we laugh. What else would you expect from us?

See you on the trail (dress warm),
Anthony and Tom

Some Words To Consider

We heard this the other day and it has been going around in my head since. So, I thought I’d share it with you. These words are from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Worst Act of Reason is War. Every war has a reason, and the reason justifies the war. Those who engage in war, reason it out. But reason is limited. As reason changes, justification falls apart. All the reasons for every war appear to be justifiable to some limited minds and for limited time. Hence, war becomes inevitable on this planet.

War is limited to human beings. No other species in creation engage in war or mass destruction, as they have no reason. Animals have their prey and let everything just be. But mankind, from time immemorial, has been engaging in war because Man lives on reason. Man gives reason to every act of his and justifies it. As reasons change, his justifications fall apart.

Man has to transcend reason, and only then can he realize the Divinity. Then he does not engage in war. Only when people become sensible, rise above hatred and have heightened consciousness can the war be stopped.

A Message From Another Veteran

Here in Colorado, we’ve met some awesome people. One, Mike, is an Iraq Veteran who walked with us from Monument to Colorado Springs. I asked him to share something for the blog. This is what he wrote:

My name is Michael Ulanski I’m an OIF veteran and was an infantryman for eight years. I first heard about Veterans Trek on facebook through another page I follow, I was really interested in what they set out to do and the message they wanted to get out to the public. This is important to me for lots of reasons first because I have been down and felt like there was no hope and just wanted it to end and that is a dangerous place to be at and I am tired of our brothers and sisters feeling the same and seeing the only way out as suicide. Also I am disgusted at how the VA is run and how the bureaucrats treat the veterans they are in charge of taking care of, refusing to give them the help they so desperately need and earned. No veteran should come home and get out of the military and become homeless because they can’t get the help that they are reaching out for. Treating the men and women that swore to protect this country like freeloaders or damaged goods is just not ok. My visit with Anthony and Tom at my mom’s house where they stayed and the walking with them the next day was great. Just talking to them and hearing their conviction and know how much I feel the same about issues as they do was awesome. Walking with them was great I have a lot of service related health issues and was very worried I was not going to make it very far especially as easy as I get dehydrated and the fact I haven’t been able to do that much physical activity. They kept checking on me and motivating meĀ and I just kept pushing myself to make it with them ,because they are going and have gone a lot farther than me and I can at least try to make it for them and for our brothers and sisters that need these issues out in the public and to show myself that I can overcome this and I’m not broken. If you get the chance to walk with them or host them please take the opportunity they are two awesome guys doing something so great not just for themselves but for all of us.

Thank you, Mike. On our walk, we’ve had the opportunity to meet some great people, some Veterans and some not. But, without a doubt, each has left their mark on us. We can only hope that their opportunity to meet us and share this journey has been as valuable to them as it has been for us.