Army veteran Eli Smith is on a journey to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by hiking 13,000 miles, over the span of a few years, and stopping in all four corners of the United States.
He began his journey in Pensacola, Florida on Nov. 22, 2016. Since then, he has hiked 4,400 miles westward and arrived in San Diego, the first corner, in April of this year. He arrived in the second corner, Cape Flattery, Washington, last month.
When asked what inspired him to begin his journey, Smith told American Military News: “I wanted to do something that no one else has done before to bring an added layer of awareness. It took a lot of research because a lot of people have done a lot of things. I knew I wanted to do some kind of walk, and when I found out that this journey has never been completed or even attempted, I got to work.”
When he started hiking, his goal was simple: He wanted to save at least one veteran from suicide.
“If I can help save just one life, then all the hardships, winters in the north, deserts, pain, loneliness and everything else will be absolutely worth it,” Smith wrote on his website. “Since I started the walk in November of 2016, I have received six letters/phone calls from Veterans that were suicidal and came across my walk and have changed their minds about suicide and are still with us today.”
In order to fund his journey, Smith sold everything he owned. He got rid of his material possessions – including his vehicle – and purchased his hiking pack and a plane ticket, and embarked on his quest westward.
Since Smith doesn’t have a home and is unemployed, he has been relying on others to help him complete his journey.
“I was not that well-to-do, but the drive and calling to make this hike happen was greater than myself, and I was willing to do anything to help my fellow Veterans, as I’m sure you are as well. I sold my electronics, furniture, collectibles, towels, kitchen appliances, even my pickup truck. I ended up with the items in my pack and three totes of sentimental items I couldn’t part with,” Smith wrote on his website. “Needless to say that there are several areas where funds will become an issue. Food, shelter, gear, shoes, monthly bills such as cell phone and GPS transponder, and more.”
Smith has a Patreon page so he can receive donations and continue trekking across the country meeting veterans and spreading his message.
Smith has also run into some tough times along his journey.
“The most rewarding part, by far, has been the letters from fellow Veterans that have said that they were suicidal at the time when they came across my journey and changed their mind about suicide. Knowing that this journey is literally saving lives is more rewarding than anything I can imagine,” Smith told American Military News. “But there have been many tough times along the journey. Someone tried to kidnap me; running into wildlife, suffering from a heat stroke, five days through the desert with no human contact, and many others. However, not seeing my family is probably the hardest part.”
PTSD is a topic Smith knows too well. Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Smith has lost two friends to suicide. He is walking to bring awareness and hopefully reduce that number.
“I’m just some guy walking around with a backpack, you know. I’m homeless and jobless, and it’s making a difference,” Smith said.
Now that he has finished his second corner, Smith will be taking some time off to see his family before returning to Washington to take his journey to the East Coast in April 2018.
He plans to stop in many major cities including Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Kansas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Nashville, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; and Washington, D.C.
When asked what he has learned on his journey, Smith told American Military News: “I have learned that no matter what your background, job, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other factor for that matter, we are all Americans and we come together regardless of our differences for the greater good. Everyone out here is 99.9 percent good. I have slept in strangers’ houses. People have stopped me on the side of the road not knowing what I was doing and just simply asked if I needed help, a meal, or needed to go to their place to sleep and wash clothes. You simply do not hear of these amazing acts of kindness. Americans are ready and willing to help anyone out. They have made me feel at home no matter where I have been.”