Army veteran Ernesto Rodriguez is walking 2,200 miles to raise awareness about veteran suicide. (Photo courtesy of Ernesto Rodriguez)
By Rindi White
How far would you go to save 22 veterans’ lives a day? Ernesto Rodriguez, a U.S. Army veteran who was medically discharged after being deployed twice in Iraq and twice again in Afghanistan, is walking 2,200 miles to raise awareness of what he calls a suicide epidemic.
“We need to really have a conversation on the veteran suicide rate, why it’s so high, what we can do about it, how do we fix it,” he said in a March 28 Facebook live video from Newport Beach, California.
Rodriguez started his journey on Veterans Day in 2016, leaving his home of Clarksville, Tennessee, with the hope of reaching Los Angeles by mid-March. He carries his 60-pound rucksack and the American flag, covering roughly 20 miles a day.
Rodriguez plans to walk the last five miles of his journey in Los Angeles on April 19. In a Facebook message, Rodriguez said he plans to officially complete his trip from the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center on Wilshire Boulevard, leaving there at 7 a.m.
Along the way he’s stopped to talk with veterans’ groups, homeless veterans and many more. He’s also done several news interviews, including one with a reporter from the Dallas Observer, where he said he saw that his veteran friends weren’t receiving the help they needed from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rodriguez told the Observer that he has twice attempted suicide himself, and that he believes he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, though he told his Facebook followers in February that he prefers the term post-traumatic stress injury, instead.
“It is not a disorder, not a disease. It is not something we randomly get. It is an injury,” he said in the Facebook video.
Along the way, Rodriguez has been offered cash many times. He refuses, instead asking that money be given to veterans organizations that are doing good work, or that someone bent on helping him out give him a hotel room for a night or a hot meal. He’s financed the walk on such generosity, and on his disability checks, he said.
The 2,200-mile journey has not always been easy. He’s had low times, and has shared his thoughts regularly with his Facebook audience. He has been accused of being a glory-seeker, but says he’s not in it for glory.
“I did not want to walk across the country. It hurts, it’s painful. It’s not a good day every day,” he told his Facebook followers in a March 28 video.
He just wants more people to work toward helping veterans find a peaceful way to live their lives.
“This walk is not me, it’s us. #forthe22 is not mine, it’s ours. This is not the work of the individual, we are a collective. We do this to help our HEROES!” he posted on March 30.
Follow him for more details of his walk, or to learn more about his future plans, at www.facebook.com/Nerdnesto.