By Nikki Metzger
High Desert Daily
(Victor Valley)–An unusual site here in the High Desert is to see someone walking along Route 66.
Even more unusual is to see that person walking BAREFOOT along Route 66, carrying a sign that reads “18 vets a day commit suicide”. However, Ron Zaleski recently did just that.
He is walking across the America barefoot to create awareness for the epidemic of suicide among veterans of the military and the need for counseling for those that have PTSD, or post traumatic stress syndrome.
Ron and his wife Valeria began this trip on the day after Memorial Day 2010 in Concorde, Massachusetts. Valeria explained, “When started the trip we were living in Key Largo, Fl. We specifically drove up to Boston to begin the trip symbolically at Concorde, Massachusetts where the first shots were fired in the Revolutionary War that gave birth to our country. The symbolism for us is at this point is that we were birthed in conflict and we have been conflict ever since, and our veterans are paying way too high of a price. Just about everybody in America by now has been touched by PTSD.”
When asked why he walks barefoot, Ron said, “I stopped wearing shoes in 1972 when I got out of the Marine Corp. I did it as a memorial to my friends that had died while I was in the Marines. When anyone would ask me why I don’t wear shoes, I would say ‘I don’t feel like it. You got a problem with that?’” After a moment of reflection he continued, “I did that for 33 years. In 2005 a child asked me. That was the first person I ever told the real reason. It was then that I realized I had a hollow memorial, a meaningless penance, I hadn’t helped a soul. To me, the best way to honor the dead is to take care of the living.”
In 2006 Zaleski formed the Long Walk Home as a non-profit organization to call attention to the need for mandatory PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) counseling for all military troops prior to discharge.
Ron’s first walk was along the Appalachian Trail, barefoot of course, to raise awareness about the suicide epidemic among our veterans. He met many people and asked them to write letters to their representatives in government. He also appeared before Congress at an informal hearing.
But the epidemic kept getting worse. Ron then made a plan to address the issue. “A plan is only good however, if it’s followed by: action or ’footwork’” he writes on his website.
“We started in Concorde, Mass. the day after memorial day. I walked from there to Boston. I took Paul Revere’s path to New York, then the Civil War trail. Then we took the Trail of Tears, and now we’re on Route 66,” Zaleski explained.
“Why I do this? Every guy that comes home (from war) affects 30 people. The 18 suicides a day is just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is – the guys that come home that are dysfunctional, like my father, that don’t have tools. The guys that get incarcerated, the guys that abuse drugs and alcohol. Abuse their families. A lot of guys come home and they’re OK, but they’re different. They’re hard. They’re not the kid you knew that was on the block a few years ago,” Zaleski said.
Ron explained his three point plan:
“The first thing we want is grieving for them before they get out of boot camp. To help prepare them just like policemen and firemen. They’re going to endure more trauma than any cop of firemen.”
“The second part is mandatory group counseling – this will start to take away that stigma. The grieving can be done in four hours in a group. It can be 120-140 guys in a group. Possibly run by two counselors. This way if someone asks a question that someone else is afraid to ask, everyone can get something out of it. Then they will be taught tools like breathing, writing, meditating, a lot alternative things other than drugs. Drugs don’t fix the problem. They take care of a symptom but they don’t fix the problem.”
“The last part – support groups available after troops get discharged. They need someone to talk to without judgment, someone that they can tell, ‘this is what I did, this is what I saw” and not be judged, not feel guilty. We’ve been asking vets to start support groups.”
Ron and Valeria have met many people along their Long Walk. They carry the petition with them and ask everyone to sign it. They listen to the stories that people share about their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors who have come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are not the same.
“What we really want is for people to sign that petition. They can go on the website and sign it. People say, ‘oh, what good is my signature?’ Your signature is you drawing a line and taking a stand. When you do that, you have changed and you make the world different. When I wrote my first letter I stood up for something and I changed. Whether that petition goes anywhere or not, whether we get this law passed or not, you changed and the world is a little different. And maybe makes it easier for the next person,” Ron explained.
Ron and Valeria have nearly completed their first part of the journey. “After we get done doing this walk, we’re driving to every capitol; we’re going to see as many congressmen, senators, governors as we can. We are going to hand deliver the petition to the President on November 11th. We’re speaking at the Committee for Veteran’s Affairs sometime in the next couple of months. And then we’re going to build shelters for guys that are living under bridges, and we’re going to build retreats for those guys that are coming home and their spouse so they have a chance,” Ron said.
Ron’s website is www.thelongwalkhome.org. The petition can be found there, plus Ron’s and Valeria’s blogs chronicling their adventure, many video clips, pictures and contact information for them.
Ron said, “We need to fix people because people are this country. I say we have to start doing this stuff now, we have to start the support groups because we are the ones that are going to do the work no matter what law is passed.”