Eli Smith served in South Korea with the U.S. Army, and when he was discharged in 2002 was saddened and shocked by what he learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide rates among veterans.
He said the country loses 20 veterans each day to suicide; when those statistics ultimately included two men he had served with, he knew he wanted to do something — not just anything, but something that had never been done before to raise awareness.
Selling everything he owned down to his pickup truck and cat, he began a journey on foot and bicycle to the four corners of the United States that has been filled with heartache, danger, setting unofficial world records and seeing the good when people begin to grasp the enormity of the epidemic plaguing veterans.
During his time in Massachusetts, Smith recently stopped in at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans to feed the 60 veterans with pizza, and to donate 200 pairs of underwear and coffee.
He said word of mouth and targeting the major cities across the country is how he plans his route and stops; he ended up in Dedham because the businesses in the town were very kind to him. The Holiday Inn put him up for three nights, and the Yard House invited him in for a meal one night.
“That’s pretty much how this journey goes; it’s put on by donations,” Smith said. “It’s spread by word of mouth, on social media, through interviews. I’m the busiest unemployed person around.”
Smith said his greatest joy on the journey so far has been the 24 messages and letters from veterans who changed their mind about suicide after they came across information about his trip.
However, not all veterans he meets or hears about have a happy ending to their story.
“I met a veteran’s advocate in Maine about a month ago,” Smith said. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man. A couple of days ago he took his life. That one was a tough one to learn about.”
Not everything has been easy as Smith has been robbed at gunpoint, almost kidnapped, gotten heat stroke, gotten lost in the woods, been hit by cars, and had a truck try to run him over.
“A gang in San Diego put a bounty on my head after they saw me on TV,” Smith said. “They wanted me dead for a gang initiation.”
All that being said, Smith said the biggest surprise along the way has been the lack of support from cities and towns he has stopped in, including the lack of media coverage in Boston.
“I haven’t received any donations in a really long time; donations for the event (at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans) came from people on the West Coast,” Smith said. “I’m living by the skin of my teeth in getting this done. I think people are a little hesitant (to donate) because I’m not a nonprofit or an organization, but it’s kind of ironic. If you donate to a charity, the money gets picked over. When it goes through me and my journey, it all goes to veterans and raising awareness.”
Smith began walking on Nov. 22, 2016, leaving Pensacola, Fla., and arriving in San Diego almost one year later after he started.
While the original plan was to walk the entire trip, one year of carrying a 65-pound backpack ruined Smith’s knees, so he bought an electric assist bike and hit the second corner of the country at Cape Flattery in Washington.
With his bike weighing 250 pounds when loaded with his gear, Smith set off on the second leg of his journey in February 2018, ending in Ohio in late October 2018. He just hit the third corner of the country in West Quoddy Head, Maine, on May 25, 2019, after two months of biking as part of the third leg of his journey and is planning to finish up, after a total of 15,000 miles, at the farthest end of the Florida Keys in October.
He has already unofficially broken the world record for the most miles biked in 24 hours (122) and the longest journey to raise awareness about something; he’s also lost 75 pounds in the process.
His message to anyone reading about his journey is to reach out to veterans, even the ones that seem perfectly OK.
“Reach out to any veterans you know,” Smith said. “Call them or text them. Don’t assume they are okay even if they say so. Let them know you’re there.”
To donate or learn more about Smith and his journey, visit https://4cornershike.org.
To follow his journey and see live updates, visit Eli Smith 4CornersHike on Facebook.
© 2019 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass.
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