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Marine Corps veteran, firefighter hiking to raise awareness of PTSD

Marines with Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany’s Military Funeral Honors Detail conduct a military funeral for a fallen service member at Andersonville National Cemetery, Andersonville, Ga., June 10, 2015. (Capt. Justin Jacobs/U.S. Marine Corps)
February 05, 2020

Palo Alto firefighter and Marine Corps veteran John Preston walked into Guadalupe on Highway 1 on Jan. 25, or the 13th day of a multiday journey from the Bay Area to Southern California to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder among first responders and military veterans.

Titled “22 and you,” Preston is making the hike from Palo Alto to San Diego, covering more than 500 miles of distance on foot.

The number “22” signifies the number of veterans who die by suicide each day. That figure comes from a 2013 study published by the Veterans Administration, which showed roughly that many died by suicide per day between 1999 and 2010.

Preston, 38, came up with the idea to hike six months ago and was inspired by his older brother, Michael, a Marine Corps veteran and police officer who took his own life in 2016.

Leaving from the Palo Alto Fire Department at 250 Hamilton Ave. with a nine-person crew, including friends and colleagues, on Jan. 13, Preston is slated to end his hike at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego on Feb. 9.

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Preston spent five days hiking through Santa Barbara County, going from Guadalupe on Jan. 25 to Montecito on Jan. 29.

Local stragglers and first-responder groups joined Preston along the way to show their support, including the Guadalupe and Santa Barbara County fire departments.

The final leg of the journey will take him from Encinitas to the museum, where he will be greeted with a small event that will include a stand-up routine by his friend and comedian Jamie Kaler.

He’s also traveling with a small film crew. Preston signed a contract with Silver Rose Entertainment and Veteran Powered Films to make a documentary of his journey. He hopes to raise money for various nonprofit organizations, which can be found on his website at 22andyou.net.

Preston is no stranger to fame. He’s also an alternative rock musician who’s had some commercial success, charting alongside Metallica and Imagine Dragons, he said.

The hike isn’t simply about awareness, he said, but to also carry on the legacy of his older brother.

“I’m a little brother who wakes up every day without my older brother,” Preston said.

Originally from Cincinnati, Preston grew up in a household steeped in Marine Corps tradition. His dad and both of his brothers also were Marines.

Preston chose San Diego because it signifies the place where his father went to boot camp.

“I wanted to finish in San Diego because my father always talked about that and he was always proud of his service,” Preston said. “My journey to the Marine Corps was through my father. It set the path in my life.”

Preston himself served from 2000 to 2004 as an infantry radio operator, deploying both to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tragedy struck four years ago when his father died during surgery, and six months after that, his brother Michael died.

Preston believes his brother’s 20-year career as a police officer in Northern Kentucky had something to do with his death.

“He had a rough career as a police officer,” Preston said, adding that the numerous emergency calls took a toll. “He had a lot of brain trauma that he didn’t speak about and kept bottled up. He had that Marine Corps mentality of sucking it up.”

That’s the mentality Preston had when he started his hike, which started to take a toll on him 200 miles into the journey.

Somewhere near King City, Preston began to physically fall apart. His feet grew blisters and he was unable to walk.

At first, he refused to accept help, which reflected how his older brother refused to get help with his struggle.

Then Preston’s crew began sharing the load of the 50-pound pack he carried, deciding with their help to push on through his injuries and exhaustion.

“This is what my vision was. I’m going to keep walking, I’m going to endure the pain,” Preston said. “I want people to stop killing themselves.”

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© 2020 Santa Maria Times