Nearly three years ago, Eli Smith sold everything he had – his pickup truck, furniture, electronics – right down to kitchen towels to embark on a journey.
His trek, to hike and bike across the United States and raise awareness for post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and how high the suicide rate is in the veteran community, is nearing 13,000 miles.
Army Veteran Eli Smith is cycling 15,000+ miles to all four corners of the U.S. for Veterans with PTSD and Veterans Suicide. Eli made a stop at #Foxwoods this week, and took time with Chairman and Interim CEO Rodney Butler. We are proud to support Eli through his journey! pic.twitter.com/DRGVwKH4H2
— Foxwoods Resort Casino (@FoxwoodsCT) June 20, 2019
“I lost a couple of guys I served with to suicide, and it hit me pretty hard,” said Smith, an Army veteran who lives in Ohio. “I wanted to do something about it.”
Smith traveled through Connecticut late last week and stayed at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The 39-year-old made stops in New Haven and Stamford before heading to New York City.
He’s on the final stretch of his trip – he began in Pensacola, Florida on Nov. 22, 2016. He’s targeting Oct. 16 of this year to finish – Key West is the end point.
“I’ve gone to three of the four corners of the U.S.,” he said. “I visit different nonprofits along the way, retired veterans homes, homeless veteran shelters. I just visited one in Boston and got them pizzas and supplies that they needed.
“I’m trying to raise money and save lives.”
Smith began walking. He walked nearly 5,000 miles with a 65-pound backpack. When he got to the second corner of the country – Washington state – he switched to peddling his pedego stretch, or cargo bike. He bikes about 50 to 60 miles a day, talks to different groups and logs his journey on Facebook.
“I’m told I’m the busiest, unemployed man in America,” he said. “People also thought I was lying when I decided to do this because I was 75 pounds heavier. I was very serious.”
Earlier this month, Smith posted on his Facebook page that a veteran he had recently met in Augusta, Maine, “took his own life.”
“I’ve come across so many who seem happy and are pillars in their communities,” he said. “But they’re struggling.”
According to data the VA released in 2018, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than for the general population in the U.S., amounting to about 20 veterans a day. The rate for vets aged 18 to 34 increased by more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016.
In 2015, the CT Mirror reported on a U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn,-sponsored bill (along with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.) that provides more mental health resources to the Department of Veterans Affairs and demands more accountability from the agency. At the time, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day.
“We owe these wounded warriors more effective mental health care, so they can win the war against inner demons that come home from service,” Blumenthal said told the CT Mirror. “We’re making only a down payment here.”
In Connecticut, 49 veterans died by suicide in 2014 (the most recent statistics available), a suicide rate of 25.9 per 100,000 population, according to Hartford Healthcare.
Benefitting 4 Corners Charities, Smith is committed to finishing his feat estimated at more than 15,000 miles. Although, biking through New England has been rough and what he called disheartening.
“I’m running out of money and there are times I want to quit,” he said. “Every penny that is donated to me goes directly to veterans. I’ve had so many veterans reach out to me across my journey, telling me that what I’m doing changed their minds about suicide.
“So it’s saving veterans lives. That’s making it worth it.”
© 2019 Norwich Bulletin, Conn.
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