The Long Walk Home: One Barefoot Activist's Mission to Stop the Veteran Suicide Epidemic

Sunday, 24 October 2010 14:31 By Jessica Newman, Campus Progress | name.

His feet are gnarled and mangled from scorching roads and stubbed toes, with ripped toenails and sores on his soles. Sometimes bandages cover his open wounds, usually caused by shards of glass on the sidewalk or bits of scrap metal.

But Ron Zaleski, the barefoot activist, doesn’t seem to notice the pain. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t worn shoes since 1972. Maybe it’s because he just can’t feel it anymore. Or maybe it’s because he’s on a mission to save the lives of returning veterans who might commit suicide if he didn’t keep walking.

Each day, 18 veterans commit suicide, according to a report released by the Veterans Administration earlier this year. While the number represents veterans from all wars in American history (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, etc.), it has risen dramatically in the last decade due to an increase in suicides of young veterans, ages 18-29.

The situation has been labeled a “suicide epidemic” in a 2007 CBS report and a “betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for” by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“This is not okay with me,” says Zaleski, 55, who is spending 13 months trekking across the country, shoeless, to fight for responsible re-entry into society for service members.

“We ask them to do the unspeakable, and then when they return home, we don’t speak about it,” he says. A week before he embarked on his journey, we talked in person in Gainesville, Fla., at the home of a member of Veterans for Peace, the organization supporting him in his efforts.

Zaleski was drafted during the Vietnam War but never saw combat and remained stateside when the Marines assigned him a desk job. His closest friends and fellow service members who shipped out didn’t have the same luck.

He never recovered from the survivor guilt, he says, and he began walking barefoot in 1972 as an odd, somewhat angry, protest. Zaleski hasn’t worn shoes since.

“I’m just making up for 33 years of sitting on my hands, watching this happen,” he says. “I’m doing something now.”

His journey began in Concord. Mass., on June 1. Although Zaleski lived in Key Largo, Fla., he chose to start from Concord because he believes it’s a symbolic location representing the United States’ birth from war and its continuous involvement in combat.

His mission has been to collect 1 million signatures before Veterans Day next year endorsing his plan to support veterans returning home to civilian life, and he expects to present them to the White House at the end of his trek.

Luckily, Zaleski is not alone in his journey. His partner, Valeria Moran, gave up her life in Key Largo to follow him in the Winnebago, or “the closet,” as they jokingly call it. Zaleski sold all of his belongings to buy the trailer and finance his journey.

Both have seen the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) firsthand, Moran through her father who deserted her family when she was a child, and Zaleski through a father who never recovered from his time in combat during World War II. And both committed the rest of their lives to keeping the children of veterans from suffering in the way they did.

“Parents show their kids the way,” Zaleski says. “These guys coming back can’t do that without help.”

Zaleski’s plan to help veterans has several steps. First, he calls for mandatory grief counseling while service members are in boot camp, before they ship out to combat, much like the counseling provided to firefighters and law enforcement officers to prepare them for the potential loss of a colleague. Currently, service members receive little-to-no training on dealing with traumatic events before they are shipped off for combat.

Second, he calls for mandatory debriefing for service members prior to discharge to give them the tools to cope with stress and the trauma. Currently, service members are only given this attention if they seek help on their own; the mandatory debriefing at this time focuses mainly on career counseling and transitioning into civilian life, and it only mentions dealing with PTSD in passing.

Lastly, Zaleski calls for support groups made up of fellow service members to help peers transition back into civilian life.

“The last point is important because no one can understand what a veteran has seen in combat better than another veteran,” Zaleski says. “You go home to your wife, and she wants to know what’s causing you so much pain, and you tell her, but then she looks at you like you’re a monster. That’s not a good way to deal with the stress.”

Military Suicides on the Rise

June 2010 broke the record for highest number of Army suicides: 32. Of those, 21 were active duty.

Last month, the Marines Corps released data showing there were 52 active duty suicides within its branch of the military in 2009, an all-time high for the corps.

In July, a task force formed by congressional mandate released a report [PDF] on veteran suicides to the Pentagon, citing “heightened operational tempo, repeated deployments and insufficient quantity and quality of dwell time” as contributing factors to the growing number of suicides. “Dwell time” is the period a service member is able to spend away from the stress of combat to regroup and maintain his or her mental health.

According to the report released by the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, “In the five years from 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 members of the Armed Forces took their own lives, an average of one suicide every 36 hours.” And the main problem is a system that asks too much of its soldiers and gives too little in return.

But the Department of Defense, the Armed Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs all understand this is a problem. It just seems no one knows how to go about fixing it.

“Why do we know so much about suicides but still know so little about how to prevent them?” asked Eric Shineski, Veterans’ Affairs secretary, at a press conference in January. “Simple question, but we continue to be challenged.”

What the Military is Doing (And Failing to Do)

The VA touts its National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a hotline that opens communications between counselors and veterans who are contemplating taking their own lives. But many, like Zaleski, say this is too little, too late.

When the VA started the hotline in 2007, it handled 9,380 calls. Last year, the number rose to nearly 119,000, proof that the hotline is needed. Dr. Janet Kemp, the VA’s national suicide prevention coordinator, credits the hotline with rescuing about 7,000 veterans from taking their own lives since it started.

But what veterans really need, Zaleski says, is a comprehensive, preventative, and long-term “culture of treatment.” Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Treatment for PTSD and depression costs anywhere from $6,000 to $25,000 per veteran for the two years after discharge, according to a 2008 study put out by the RAND Corporation. But money isn’t the only hurdle.

“The heavy stigma associated with mental health care stops many service members and veterans from seeking treatment,” Tim Embree, member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, testified before the House of Representatives’ Veterans Affairs Committee.

“They give you the ‘don’t-beat-your-wife’ talk and then tell you to raise your hand in a group of 100 if you’re having a problem,” says Anthony Maroun, a Marine veteran from South Florida who served in Iraq in 2006 and was discharged in 2007 when his four-year term on active duty ended. “They tell you to go talk to someone, and they put the burden on you to seek help, which goes against everything they tell you in boot camp. You’re not supposed to think that you could be weak.”

Before Maroun went to Iraq, he and his battalion were presented with a PowerPoint presentation on how to deal with combat stress and were told, “You can always talk to the chaplain.”

“The whole idea of boot camp is to turn you into a different person in three months, physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Maroun says. “They prepare you for war. I don’t know how the military would actually fix this problem or institute a focus on emotional health without fucking with the drill instructors.”

But Col. Grant Olbrich, the section head of the Marines Corps Suicide Prevention Program, says that Marines can be tough and also receive support at the same time.

“It doesn’t mean they are less of a Marine if they need some help to get through a rough patch in their lives,” he told the Los Angeles Times this month.

In fact, the Marines Corps recently instituted a “buddy program” to help service members team up to help each other, from the time they enter boot camp to the time they after they are discharged. While Marines aren’t specifically assigned a “buddy,” they are taught in boot camp how to look out for signs of suicidal thoughts among their unit members. They’re also given access to a Marines-specific “de-stress” hotline staffed by other Marines who know first-hand what the potential victim is going through. The idea is to further the “Leave No Man Behind” mantra to every aspect of the corps, including mental health.

The Journey Continues

When passers-by approach Zaleski on his journey, rarely are they veterans. Usually, they’re family members, who see their loved ones going through immense emotional torment, struggling with PTSD and the realities of brutal wars in a civilian world.

One mother, in particular, sticks out in Zaleski’s mind, bringing him to the point of tears every time he recounts the story.

“She was driving down the road, saw my sign, pulled a U-turn and was already crying when she approached me,” he says.

The woman’s son left for his third tour in Iraq months before and he already suffers from PTSD. Now she spends her days sitting by the phone, waiting for the dreaded phone call from the military that her son finally snapped from the stress and won’t be returning home.

“Maybe I’m taking a bit of their burden away from them by being a shoulder for them to cry on,” Zaleski says. “But if we don’t start to do things differently, nothing is going to change.”

To address this issue, the task force, created by the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, recommended creating a Suicide Prevention Policy Division through the Secretary of State to focus the efforts in one department and to prevent overlap and inefficiencies of programs.

Of its 49 findings and 76 targeted recommendations, the task force pushed reducing the stress on the Armed Forces, focusing on service member well-being (in mind, body, and spirit), developing a comprehensive stigma reduction campaign plan, and developing skills-based training regarding suicide prevention—all points addressed in Zaleski’s three-part plan.

The journey isn’t always easy for Zaleski. One group of men fired shots at him from a pick-up truck in Virginia, he says. While he doesn’t know where the men’s anger came from, he is certain that he won’t be scared away from his mission.

“It was a drive-by,” he says. “I don’t know what their problem was, but I know they were trying to intimidate me. Well, let them try, but I’m not backing down.”

Many people he meets say they support his cause, but they don’t want to get involved.

“You live in this country,” Zaleski responds. “Take control.”

Without the tools to cope, veterans are left to fend for themselves. While he doesn’t believe money alone will fix the problem, Zaleski knows that time is of the essence. If the country doesn’t act fast, the suicide epidemic will only continue to spread and the numbers will continue to increase. Now is the time to act.

“No one is going to say that this isn’t a problem,” Zaleski says. “What I want to do is get American citizens to say in a clear, united voice that we want this to change.”

To learn more about Ron Zaleski and to sign his petition, visit his website at thelongwalkhome.org. 

Last modified on Sunday, 24 October 2010 14:58