On the dash of a 1948 John Deere tractor sits a small teddy bear faded from years of sun exposure. It’s meant to keep Ivan Stoltzfus from loneliness while he’s driving across the country.
But what perhaps brings Stoltzfus more company than his granddaughter’s teddy bear are the photos of fallen veterans that line the inside cab of his tractor. Each photo was gifted to Stoltzfus by veterans’ family members he met during his cross-country sojourn.
Stoltzfus is two months into a six-month journey across America. It’s his third time traveling across the country on a vintage John Deere tractor pulling a trailer. This trip, as were the two before, is to raise money and awareness for veterans, first responders, service members and law enforcement. He calls it “Across America for Wounded Heroes.”
On Wednesday Stoltzfus bunkered down for the night at the Yellowstone River RV Resort & Campground in Billings; he’d just come from Hardin, and as of Wednesday had put on exactly 15,009 miles on his tractor. His tractor, which he calls Johnabilt, reaches a whopping top speed of 14 mph, and Stoltzfus usually travels only about 60-70 miles per day. Driving slowly has never been tiresome to him.
“Even coming out through here it’s always something new around the next curve, and I’m so excited to see what that is,” he said.
The idea of pulling a camper with a vintage tractor might sound strange to some, but for Stoltzfus it seemed obvious.
“The tractor brings the attention,” he said. “The camper is the billboard.”
Trip sponsors and the website for donating are emblazoned on both sides of the camper.
But to say that he’s driving the vintage tractor solely for flash would be oversimplifying it. The retired farmer’s decision to travel across America in a tractor was a childhood fantasy prompted by the comforting sound of his father’s farm work.
“Later in life he started farming with a two-cylinder (tractor), and I loved the sound of that,” he said.
“Put-putting” on rural roads with a tractor seemed impossible, and many were quick to scorn his childhood fantasy. His dad assuaged those fears and encouraged Stoltzfus to follow through.
“One time out of the blue he told me. ‘Ivan, if you have a dream, don’t wait until you’re too old. Just do it. I wish I would’ve done more,’” he said. “That intrigued me. It wasn’t until years later that I retired and thought, ‘I want to do this, but if I’m going to, I’m going to do it for a cause.’”
Riding for veterans was an easy choice.
“As I got older I took my freedom for granted and it finally hit me. Since I wasn’t in the military I needed to do my part. This is my one way I try to share,” he said.
He thinks veterans are often overlooked and underserved.
In the U.S. there are approximately 20 million veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Veterans often need complex medical and mental health services. Adjusting to civilian life after combat can come with a milieu of side effects, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, only about 6 million, or about 30%, of veterans receive Veteran Health Administration services.
Beyond medical care, helping veterans get into and stay in homes is also a point of passion for Stoltzfus.
“Our veterans are out on the street. It hurts,” he said.
On a single night about 37,800 veterans experience homelessness. About 23,300 are unsheltered, or living on the street on any given night, according to the annual Point in Time survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2018.
Stoltzfus’ funds can go to anything from helping with medical costs to helping vets with housing costs, he said. For this, his third fundraiser, he’s partnered with Operation Second Chance, a charity out of Maryland that provides aid and services for veterans. His goal is to raise $100,000. Two months in, he’s already raised just more than $40,000. To donate, visit www.operationsecondchance.com.
But, what has touched Stoltzfus more than the donations is meeting veterans from across America. He’s filled two books with stories from the people he’s met, and he blogs every day so he doesn’t forget the kind faces and welcoming people he encounters.
He believes he’s making a difference. Once a veteran drove a few hours out of his way to chat with Stoltzfus. He told Stoltzfus, “it’s not so much the money. It’s just knowing that some people out there care.”
Sometimes just knowing someone cares might be all it takes to help some vets deal with mental health issues, including preventing a death by suicide. In the U.S. 20 veterans die by suicide per day, according to the VA.
From Billings, Stoltzfus will make his way to Red Lodge, where he’ll stay for multiple days. On Monday he’ll host a “happy hour” at the Beartooth Lodge on Main Street with his tractor, Johnabilt, on display. His stay coincides with an Operation Second Chance retreat in Red Lodge.
Stoltzfus holds the people he meets, the photos he’s received, and the purple hearts and other metals he’s been given dear.
While telling the stories of the photos, Stoltzfus’ voice cracked, and he wiped his eyes.
“It means a lot to me,” he said.
© 2019 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)
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