A former U.S. Marine is walking through every state in the continental U.S. to raise awareness for a cause close to him and many other military veterans and their families.
“18 vets a day commit suicide,” reads a large sandwich board that Ron Zaleski wears on his cross-country trek.
“There’s a real sense of urgency,” he says. “Every hour and 20 minutes, another veteran takes his life.”
Zaleski says he has seen a lot of the country and beautiful sites on his excursion, but the real reason he is walking is to help build a better support system for soldiers as they come home and to raise support for providing grief counseling, similar to that which law enforcement officers and firefighters receive, as part of military boot camp before enlisted men and women ever see combat.
“Our troops go into combat totally unprepared for the trauma to come,” says a petition for which Zaleski is collecting signatures that also calls for civilian re-entry programs and support groups for returning troops.
The former marine walked into Murfreesboro on Saturday, Sept. 18, coming down Highway 96 through Lascassas, and he left Rutherford County on Monday, Sept. 20, continuing on route 96 towards Franklin.
If walking thousands of miles isn’t hard enough on its own, the traveler is walking the entire width of the continental U.S. and then some, barefoot.
In the late 1970s, Zeleski was a marine with orders to go to Vietnam, but his orders were changed just before he was scheduled to leave. However, he soon learned two of his fellow Marines had been shot and killed in the line of duty.
So even without seeing major combat himself, the trauma of the war stuck with Zaleski for decades.
For many of those years, Zaleski decided he didn’t want to wear shoes.
“They died for my freedom, so I thought I’d do what I wanted; I didn’t want to wear shoes,” he said.
Though whenever anyone asked about his lack of shoes, he’d just make excuses and say it was none of their business. He never told anyone it was in memory of fallen troops until a child asked him why in 2005.
“It was like God spoke to me through that child, saying ‘What are you doing? You’re not helping anyone,'” Zaleski said.
That’s when he decided to take action and try and make a real difference in the lives of the troops of today and tomorrow, rather than keeping his pain inside.
Zaleski has since spoken before Congress on the subject of veteran suicide prevention and grief counseling. In order to raise awareness and signatures, he began his journey on foot the first of June, 2010, in Concord, Mass., the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. His wife, Valeria, follows in a motor home where Ron can get some rest, cool off during the hottest part of the day and not have to sleep on the ground.
“I think I’m going to keep her around,” Zaleski says of his wife.
He says he usually begins walking around 6 a.m. and quits walking by noon to avoid the scorching midday sun, but he still travels 10-15 miles each day.
After he arrives in Los Angeles, he says he’ll ride in the RV to some of the states he missed on his trek west. He will have set foot in all 48 continental states by the time his journey is over.
“We got a problem, let’s fix it” is his attitude now.
Suicide effects so many, and often the families of those close to those who have taken their own life not only keep the pain to themselves, but blame themselves for not recognizing the depression in their loved one before it is too late.
Zaleski’s goal is to raise awareness of the critical need for better psychological preparation, accessible follow-up counseling and ongoing support groups to prevent some of these suicides before it is too late.
For more information on the project, visit thelongwalkhome.org, or even give Ron a call some morning at (305) 608-5778 and see where he is.