A Marist College professor is starting a 3,000-mile journey today. His solo walk begins in Portland, Oregon and he aims to wind up back on the Poughkeepsie college campus in late August. The Navy veteran is walking to raise awareness about veteran suicide and homelessness.
Tommy Zurhellen is an associate professor of English at Marist College. He was going to spend his second sabbatical writing his fourth novel. However, he was elected commander of the Poughkeepsie VFW and his plans changed.
“I started my sabbatical all ready to just take it easy and write a nice novel and drink a lot of coffee, maybe go on some trips. Well, I’m going on a trip,” Zurhellen says. “And I can’t run. I don’t know if you know this. If I get chased by a bear, I’m dead. But I can definitely walk. I’ve been walking a long time. I walked across Ireland a couple of times.”
He was set to begin his walk in Portland with his former Navy shipmate, but mostly he’ll be going it alone.
“People often ask me, where are you going to stay? And my answer is, I don’t know,” Zurhellen says. “I think an important part of this project is that I’m going to be homeless veteran for 133 days because, let’s face it, most of us really don’t know what it means to be homeless in America today.”
He will not have a tent and will sleep outside on nights where no one can take him in. The idea is to raise awareness not only about bout veteran homelessness, but veteran suicide as well. And he wants to raise funds.
“The goal is $40,387, which is the average number of homeless veterans on the street. But it all starts with awareness,” says Zurhellen. “People just don’t know, and we think we’re taking care of our veterans, thank you for your service and all these kinds of things, but we’re really not taking care of our veterans and people need to realize that, and, once they do, I think great things are going to happen.”
Zurhellen's goal is to walk an average of 22 miles each day, to recognize the recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistic that every day in the U.S., 22 veterans take their own lives. Funds raised will go directly to programs that support veterans, including Poughkeepsie-based Hudson River Housing, where Christa Hines is executive director. She met Zurhellen about a year ago.
“So he comes in, sits down in my office one day and says, okay, what can the VFW do to get more involved in our community. How can we help Hudson River Housing do more? What can we do for our local veterans and those facing homelessness, and he just went on and on,” Hines says. “And this was the first time that Hudson River Housing had really been approached by the VFW, so we were so thrilled. And his enthusiasm and positive energy was really contagious. And, from that day on, HRH started a really great partnership with the VFW and, specifically, with Tommy Zerhellen.”
For Zurhellen, it was a case at Hudson River Housing that turned him to action.
“And it was when we worked on our first veteran case together. Do you remember the female veteran, remember that? And so, we had a female veteran, local. She’s a single mom, five kids, two of which have special needs. And that mom, she was holding on to her job but she didn’t have a reliable car to get her kids to doctors’ appointments or get to work,” says Zurhellen. “And so Christa reached out and asked the VFW if we could help. And that was kind of the tipping point for me where that was just the tip of the iceberg. I really had no idea, but that was the first time when I was like, oh wow, there’s a lot to do out here that we’re not doing.”
Hines says any funds donated to Hudson River Housing would help with such items as a month’s rent, security deposits and the like. Hudson River Housing works to address homelessness and develop affordable housing options.
Zurhellen’s fellow VFW Poughkeepsie members are supportive, though Nathan Grant didn’t believe it at first.
“I thought he was joking, to be honest with you but then he said, no I’m really going to do this,” says Grant. “And I said, well, I’m with you all the way and I’m very, very proud of you, you know.”
VFW member James Metrando commends Zurhellen for raising awareness.
“Well, I work and I stay in contact with the suicide doctor, as they call him down at Castle Point. And he would like also a lot of people to be aware of what is going on, that there really is a problem out there and for us to address it,” says Metrando. “And he’s [Zurhellen] really bringing that attention to everyone by doing something like this.”
Castle Point in Wappingers Falls is part of the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System.
Zurhellen is travelling light, though welcomes a few items.
“Well, I will accept all donations of Nutter Butters. They’ll be on the web site, veteranzero.org, and on Facebook,” says Zurhellen. “You can actually send me mail, if you want, along the way, general delivery, along the way, just make sure it gets there by that day. I’ll just stop by the post office. So notes and Nutter Butters are accepted.”
Pete Colaizzo is Marist College track coach.
“I think it’s great that we as a Marist community are supporting Tommy,” Calaizzo says. “I’m going to do my small part to help him out. He wants me to post tips on Facebook, which means I’ve got to actually log into Facebook, which I don’t do that often, but we’ll do it.”
His advice to Zurhellen is the same as to his track team… footwear matters.
“And my team, if the timing works out, the last couple days of the journey in Ulster County into Dutchess County, we’re going to take a van out there and try to help Tommy out with that,” Calaizzo says. “He mentioned something about waffles and pancakes at the Phoenicia Diner. What do you think guys? Yeah, yeah, they’re shaking their heads yeah, yeah, so.”
When the end of August approaches, Zurhellen has a hope.
“But when I walk across the Walkway Over the Hudson on August 23, just hopefully by then, people in the Dutchess County but of course across the country are just more aware about this because some crazy guy decided to walk across the country,” says Zurhellen.
Geoff Brackett is executive vice president of Marist College.
“With our 2018-2023 strategic plan, Marist has identified advancing the social good as a priority for the college and that, of course, extends beyond the classroom, beyond the campus,” Brackett says.
“I’ve been, like I said, I’ve been here 15 years doing this job. And it’s been a pretty easy job, to tell you the truth, to shepherd young people to where they’re going to go, but not once have I or my colleagues, for that matter, I don’t think, put it into action, put their money where their mouth is,” Zurhellen says. “And that’s a big part of this. Marist is supporting me, and the Marist mission statement includes the social good, so we’re really trying put that into effect, put that in motion.”
Tommy Zurhellen’s nearly 3,000 mile journey will take him through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. His walk will be chronicled through the website of VetZero, the veteran service project of VFW Post 170 in Poughkeepsie.