U.S. Army veteran Ernesto Rodriguez started walking on Veteran’s Day. He was recently medically discharged out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the home of the 101st Airborne, after four tours of duty including time served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’d moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, a border town a few miles away where many soldiers live, and began a career in radio. Then the 34-year-old lost a couple of veteran friends to suicide, one of whom left behind a three-year-old child. He claims that they weren't receiving the mental health help they needed from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a system that many claim is overwhelmed.
"How do you cope with it? How do you define yourself?" he says. "You’re trained and conditioned to be a badass; then you get out of the Army."
Rodriguez attempted suicide twice and understood what his fellow veterans were battling, and he wanted to help. He says a psychologist on Skype diagnosed him with social anxiety after a 15-minute conversation. "Children died in my arms, a friend took a bullet in the eye, and you want to say I’m just bad talking to people?" says Rodriguez, who believes he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder instead of social anxiety. “I got frustrated and pissed that the system isn’t helping veterans after they get out.”
He began to research online and found a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs saying that an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day because of mental health issues stemming from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or simply the stress of transitioning from military to civilian life.
So Rodriguez grabbed a huge American flag, left his radio career and started walking. He arrived in Dallas a week before Christmas, plans to leave the day after New Year's and hopes to reach his destination on the West Coast by late March or early April. More than 700 miles so far, another 1,500 miles to go before he reaches Los Angeles if he sticks to the interstate.
Rodriguez came up with the idea from a friend, Seth Mayer, who walked a 1,000 miles to raise awareness for cancer. He says he knew he needed to do something extreme, and walking more than 2,200 miles seemed like a stunt that would attract attention. He also didn't realize that people's generosity along the road would provide a place to stay for the night, a warm meal to eat and the encouragement he needed to continue his walk.
He wasn't alone, though. Mayer, a 40-year-old fellow veteran, began the journey with him. They started the quest when REBOOT Combat Recovery, a recovery group out of Fort Campbell, decided to hold its 22-mile walk on Veteran's Day in Clarksville to raise awareness of veteran suicides. Mayer and Rodriguez learned about the walk and decided to go even farther.
U.S. Army veteran Jamie McAdaragh heard about Mayer and Rodriguez on Facebook and took her 6-year-old son to meet them a few days after they left Clarksville. She claims her marriage fell apart because of mental health issues stemming from her Army veteran husband's traumatic brain injury. "I removed my son from the environment when he was three years old, so he doesn’t remember what had happened (between us)," McAdaragh says. "As he gets older and asks questions, I want him to understand that everyone with PTSD isn’t bad and it doesn’t have to destroy families."
Mayer had to turn around at Memphis to return to his family, leaving Rodriguez to finish the journey alone. He will be in Dallas until next week. Local supporters plan to send him off at 9 a.m. Jan. 2 near the giant eyeball sculpture downtown.
Rodriguez says he feels the happiest when he serves "something bigger than himself." It’s part of the reason he joined the Army a few months prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Rodriguez was in the middle of infantry training when the Twin Towers fell. He says his drill sergeant told them they were going to war and advised those who joined the military for the college money and bonus to leave now. Some left, Rodriguez points out, but he stayed and ultimately deployed to Iraq. At first, he says he thought he was in a Call of Duty game until a bullet grazed his helmet. “That was the first time I knew it was real. I ducked back, got into a fetal position.”
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But, like other soldiers, he had no other choice but to move forward. “You become numb,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a coping mechanism in combat. You have to realize that you’re going to live or you’re going to die. All you can do is keep going; but if you think about it, when you’re done with combat, and you’re just living, all of it starts flooding back in."
He says for some veterans, the effects of combat often don’t appear until long after a soldier is reintegrated into society. He told the Observer a couple of weeks before his arrival in Dallas that it was “a slow fuse” the government is failing to recognize and often implodes with the veteran taking his or her own life.
“By the time I get to L.A., I want to be an advocate for those veterans who need help," he says. "It is more important to me to make sure they have voice.”
It’s another mission for him to complete.