College alum walks across US to aid vets

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Ryan Silvola/Beloit Daily News Beloit College alum Tom Zurhellen stands on campus on Thursday after walking from Portland, Oregon. Zurhellen is walking 22 miles per day from Portland to Poughkeepsie, New York, to rasie awareness for the 22 veterans who take their lives each day.

BELOIT - Twenty-two miles to represent the 22 veterans who take their own lives each day.

That's how much Beloit College alum and Navy veteran Tom Zurhellen is walking every day in his cross-county journey from Portland, Oregon to Poughkeepsie, New York. His voyage - which Zurhellen started on April 14 - is to raise awareness for the conditions facing many of the nation's veterans. In addition to the 22 veterans who end their lives each day - according to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - it's estimated there's an average of 40,387 veterans who are homeless each night.

Zurhellen arrived in Beloit late on Wednesday and left Beloit this morning to continue his journey. During his trek so far, most mornings he's experienced the internal dread of not knowing where he's going to sleep that night - a feeling he said many veterans around the U.S. deal with on a daily basis. He often has relied on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter or otherwise stayed in tents to keep going.

"It's very expensive to be homeless," he said.

That being said, he's been surprised by all the outpouring of support he's received from the public as he's transitioned from the cold, snowy hills and mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the scorching heat here in the Midwest. He's also loved hearing the stories of his fellow veterans.

"Those two things have kept me going," Zurhellen said.

After serving as the commander of his local VFW for the past two years, he learned more about the startling mental health and fiscal concerns facing many veterans around the nation and in his hometown.

So, when the opportunity presented itself to take a sabbatical from his position as associate professor at Marist College, he decided it was the perfect time to plan his awareness campaign.

"I'm the first person to tell you I'm not an athlete," Zurhellen said. "I wanted this to be something anyone could do for any cause they're passionate about."

He's also started a fundraising campaign, VetZero, to raise money for two nonprofits helping veterans in the Poughkeepsie area. He's looking to raise $40,387, and he's a little more than halfway there.

Throughout his journey, he said the hardest part is just getting up every day and feeling the pain from hours, days and months worth of walking. Zurhellen is on his fourth pair of shoes, and he expects to go through one more to get himself through the last 800 miles and month-and-a-half of his journey.

"I've thought about quitting a few times. I think about how I could just stop, but then I think about the pain all of those veterans are feeling, and it makes me feel humble," Zurhellen said. "Plus, I'm almost there. I can't stop now."

He's relied on Google Maps on his phone and directions from strangers (which has saved him from making wrong turns multiple times) to help him reach his next destination.

"Originally this project came out of a simple question: Can one person change the world? I've learned the answer is no; it takes many people to change the world," Zurhellen said. "However, one person can inspire others to change the world. Once we're all aware of the crisis facing veterans' mental health an suicide rates, we can do anything."

Zurhellen graduated from Beloit College in 1991, was in the Navy from 1987-1991 and has taught at Marist for the last 16 years.

He expects to make it back to Poughkeepsie on Aug. 23.

For more information on his journey, visit veteranzero.org or 'Like' "VetZero" on Facebook. To donate to his campaign, visit gofundme.com/vetzero.

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