Somewhere between 9 and 10 this morning, Eli Smith will finish packing his American flag-bedecked bike trailer in Oceanside and he’ll hit the road.
For the past few days, the 37-year-old Army veteran has been using a borrowed garage in the Fire Mountain neighborhood as the staging ground for the next leg of his three-year, 13,000-mile road odyssey.
Since Nov. 21, 2016, the Ohio native has been hiking to the four corners of the continental U.S. to raise awareness about suicide among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Smith, who served from 2000 to 2002 as a tank gunner specialist in South Korea, doesn’t have PTSD himself, but he has lost several Army buddies and veteran friends to suicide.
Some died from drinking to mask their symptoms. A couple were counselors who lost the battle with their own demons. Finally in the summer of 2016, Smith said he could no longer sit idly by as his friends died.
“I just had enough of it and I wanted to do something to raise awareness to how big the problem is in this country,” he said.
Roughly 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day, according to a 2016 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans make up just 9 percent of the U.S. population but account for 18 percent of suicides. The majority of these veterans, 70 percent, were not regular users of VA services.
While charting his 4Corners Hike on Facebook (facebook.com/4CornersHike/) has been Smith’s primary mode of raising awareness, he stops in virtually every city he reaches to speak to groups, do media interviews and help out struggling veterans.
Since arriving in Oceanside last week to pick up new gear, Smith has spoken to students at Carlsbad High School, made an appearance at a local farmers market and has done several Skype and in-person interviews. His message to all is simple: “Call a vet, text a vet.”
“It doesn’t take much to show a veteran you care,” Smith said. “Sometimes all you need to do is something small and it will make ripples that last a lifetime. Take them out to dinner. Bake them some cookies. Buy them a newspaper subscription so they have something to look forward to every morning.”
Smith said he’s received eight letters from veterans who wrote that his awareness campaign had saved their lives. That’s a satisfying feeling for a man who says he’s got just $37 in the bank.
Back in the summer of 2016, he was managing a company that made fire sprinkler systems when he came up with the idea for his 4Corners Hike. He gave up the lease on his apartment, sold his truck and all his possessions and stowed a few tubs of mementos in his mom’s attic. Then he flew to Pensacola, Fla., to begin the first leg of his journey to San Diego.
He didn’t plan well. His backpack was too heavy, his hiking boots caused blisters, he dodged an attacking rattlesnake and an aggressive driver, and he ran out of money just 700 or so miles into the trek. Then something wonderful happened.
People driving by offered him a bed in their homes. Strangers invited him in for pizza and spaghetti. Town mayors and military veterans helped him arrange awareness events. Someone bought him a cart to pull his belongings and an adequate supply of drinking water across the desert states.
And his Facebook following — which has grown from 100 to 15,346 — has become a nationwide family: buying him supplies, arranging rooms and events and driving hundreds of miles to meet him.
“It’s been beyond my imagination how kind the people of this country can be,” he said. “I have a whole new appreciation for strangers.”
Among his supporters is Arizona resident Laurie Rodriguez, who with her husband bought Smith a backup cellphone for emergencies. They also invited him to stay in their home for several days during his desert crossing last year.
She has followed the journeys of several veterans doing cross-country awareness walks and, like Smith, they all share a fierce determination to end veteran suicides.
“”He was in the Army and lost people close to him, so he and these other men are aware of what a vacuum that can leave behind in the lives of others,” Rodriguez said. “They want to make a difference in the lives of these families and show there are people out there who care and are fighting for them.”
Smith arrived in San Diego in February 2017, then walked up the West Coast to Neah Bay, at the northwest tip of Washington state. After a brief stay in Seattle, he flew back to Ohio last October to wait out the winter snowstorms and plan the next phase of his journey.
So far, he’s covered 4,600 miles, but persistent knee and back injuries have made it impossible to carry on by foot. Instead, he’ll finish the remaining 8,400 miles on an EasyMotion bicycle hooked up to a custom-made miniature camper-trailer.
The bike, which has a pedal-powered battery, was donated by David Mullett of E-Bikes of Holmes County in Ohio. And the tiny trailer (7 feet long, 42 inches wide and 40 inches high) was built and donated by Mike Weseloh of Bear Teardrop Trailer Co. in Oceanside.
Smith said the bike and trailer will not only ease his sore back and knees, it will allow him to better plan and organize his events and interviews. Because he was having so many health issues that delayed his progress, he couldn’t always guarantee his arrival time in some cities.
Today, Smith heads to Lake Elsinore for an awareness-raising event at the Warrior Built Foundation. From there, he’ll travel to Las Vegas, where he’s planning a major kickoff event. His goal is to cycle back up to Washington, then travel east across the central U.S. to the West Quoddy Head lighthouse in Maine. From there, he’ll ride down the East Coast to complete his quest in Key West, Fla.
His goal is to finish up in November 2019 so he can spend Thanksgiving with his parents and two younger brothers in Ohio.
After that? Smith said he plans to carry on his campaign against veteran suicides as long as necessary, and he’s confident he has the American public’s support in reaching that goal.
“It’s so overwhelming to see how willing people are to support a good cause, and there’s no better cause than this,” he said.
© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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