NY VFW Commander Trek Across Wyoming and America for Veterans
KEMMERER – On Day 43 of his 131-day, 2,860-mile walking journey across America, Thomas “Tommy” Zurhellen was experiencing a typical Wyoming spring day.
“I’m in Kemmerer now, it’s windy, and it rains every 10 minutes,” he said in a telephone interview while on his way to Fontenelle, his first scheduled stop in Wyoming. “I plan on being in Casper by June 7 or 8, then it’s all downhill from there! I’ve never been in this part of the country, and I’m taken aback by the natural beauty. In Poughkeepsie, you don’t get the chance to see the wide-open spaces of God’s Country like you do out here. I’m really grateful and having a great time visiting with small-town people.”
Zurhellen is serious about bringing attention nationally to the plight of many of today’s Veterans, some who are homeless, and others who have taken their own lives as a result of their unspoken experiences while serving in the U.S. Military, and their difficulty transitioning back to civilian life.
A U.S. Navy Veteran, the commander of the Poughkeepsie, New York Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170 is putting his money – and time – where his mouth is by making his trek with no tent, no hotel reservations, and a 30-pound bag while walking across America from Portland, Oregon back to Poughkeepsie.
In January, his VFW Post 170 started a service project called VetZero. The goal is to create a community without veteran homelessness, suicide, or disrespect from residents. Zurhellen's walk is a part of this project.
“Being the commander really opened my eyes to how much needs to be done for our Veterans in two major ways. One is mental health, and the other is homelessness. The numbers are just crazy.”
Zurhellen is walking 22 miles a day to represent the average number of veterans who die by suicide each day, according to a 2015 Department of Veterans Affair study. A 2018 study from VA shows a decrease in that number to 20 a day.
The project is also aiming to raise $40,387 to benefit veterans through GoFundMe; the amount represents the over 40,000 homeless veterans living on the streets in the U.S., according to the 2015 study.
“If everyone who loves a veteran donated just $22, we could really make an impact on the lives of our returning heroes in our communities,” he said.
Zurhellen is also an associate professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. While on sabbatical, he decided to use his time to “do something crazy to create awareness of these problems. We think we’re doing enough for our Veterans, but we’re not.”
While passing through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and now Wyoming, Zurhellen said he has not had the opportunity to speak with state and federal elected officials about the plight of the American Veteran.
“But I have been able to meet and talk to dozens of Veterans and people who have Veterans in their families. I’ve heard their stories, and they all sound very similar. We can do a lot more. I think people need to wake up and figure out that we CAN do more if we just tell our elected representatives to do that,” he said.
“I’ve been relying on, and amazed by, the kindness of strangers while bringing attention to those who are having a tough time,” said Zurhellen. “Part of the challenge that you see when someone like me is walking or biking across the country is that I have no safety net; no support vehicle following me. It’s just me and a backpack, trying to figure things out. I am a homeless Veteran for 131 days,” Zurhellen said.
“A couple of days ago, I was walking around Bear Lake. There are no towns there. But a couple who run a ranch near the Wyoming border heard about my story. They put me up for the night, fed me, and it was just great. There were no questions asked. And this has happened to me a dozen times so far. Being from New York, I am amazed at the friendliness, hospitality, and graciousness of people out here in the Western states. They see this big guy in a funny hat (he wears his distinctive brown VFW garrison cap most days) and hear my story, but I’ve never met anyone that didn’t want to help. It’s been really refreshing.”
So far, Zurhellen has walked about 750 miles, and it’s been tough on his shoes. What is his shoe of choice? Heads-up, Casper shoe stores!
“I'm in the middle of my second pair, and I’ll get a new pair when I get to Casper. I’ll probably end up going through 5 or 6 pairs. I started out with a good walking shoe, it was like a trainer, but after walking for a month, the shoe just didn’t have the support I needed. So I switched to a New Balance trail shoe, and it’s really great. It’s a more-sturdy shoe.”
He will be meeting Bernice Hazucha upon his arrival in Casper around June 8. She and her husband moved to Casper from Poughkeepsie a couple of years ago. They were active in the VFW Post 170 there.
“I’ve seen old shipmates in Boise, and they walked with me. I know I’ll meet other veterans on the way back home.”
Visit https://veteranzero.org/walk-the-walk and check out the itinerary to see if Commander Tom's walk is close to your hometown. Dates are subject to change, so follow along on the VetZero Facebook page at www.facebook.com/veteranzero for regular updates, photos, and stories from Tom on the road.