Saturday, September 18, 2010

739. Following the Long Walk Home

He’s in Nashville now, a stop on his way towards visiting all fifty states. He doesn’t use a small plane, an automobile, or even a bike as his mode of transportation. Ron Zaleski is walking all across America. With his petition in hand, he doesn’t even wear shoes. When there’s no one around to solicit signatures from, sometimes he’ll lay that document down to pick out one inch shards of glass or repair a torn off heel. Passion can’t even begin to describe how fervently he believes in his cause.

59-year-old Zaleski is the founder of the The Long Walk Home, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise awareness and create solutions for the mental health problems veterans face during and after their service. He wears an impressively-sized sign around his neck on his daily 10 to 15 mile barefoot walk that reads: “18 VETS A DAY COMMIT SUICIDE (‘commit suicide’ in red, bold letters).” A veteran Marine himself, Zaleski’s quest is a very personal one. “I get that sense that everybody that is in the military is related to me in some way,” he believes. “That could be my son, my daughter, my loved one in there.”

And the grief of his walk gets more personal more often than he likes. “The hardest part of this journey for me has been when a car pulls over, and a mother will stand there and cry.” She’ll tell him that “her child came home safe, committed suicide, and then she’ll hold me,” Zaleski shares, also tearing up.

Zaleski joined the Marines in 1970 even though he came from a devoutly catholic lineage and did not believe in killing. His family, he also notes, was “a dysfunctional World War II family.” His father had brought the war home with him as it continued raging within his mind. That rage manifested itself as alcoholism and mental abuse towards his family. Zaleski joined up to intentionally anger his parents in a passive-aggressive kind of way.

But when the orders to go to Vietnam arrived for him and five of his buddies, the reality compelled Zaleski to follow his convictions. He told his commanding officer that the only way he was going was “chained to a helicopter,” and he was willing to face the jail time for his decision. Miraculously, they decided he could stay because of his other critical skills. “I became an office squirt because I could type and had brains,” Zaleski says, emphasizing his Long Island accent and vernacular.

He saw one of those men later. Zaleski asked what happened. “We all got shot and two of us are dead,” his buddy told him. He decided to embrace their sacrifice for freedom -- so he stopped wearing shoes in 1972. Understandably so, people would ask why he didn’t wear shoes and Zaleski would respond combatively, “because I don’t feel like it; you got a problem with dat?”

In 2005, after years of slowly destroying the family business he inherited and a horrible divorce – all problems stemming from his arrogance and bitterness (most likely learned behavior from his father) – a girl asked the same question he had been hearing for the last 33 years. “Why don’t you wear shoes?”

“I had been doing it so long,” Zaleski recalls, “I couldn’t really have an answer. God spoke through that child.” What were you doing? He questioned of himself.

He realized then that he had what he calls “a hollow memorial; a meaningless penance.” Zaleski finally decided to do something tangible to help with the legacy of his fallen friends. So he kept doing what he did – walking shoeless – but he started doing it with a purpose.

Some of the results were unexpected. In Zaleski’s pursuit of getting mandatory PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and grief counseling for all returning veterans by collecting a one million signature petition (20,000 names in each state), he helped finally cure some of his father’s demons. Initially Zaleski walked the Appalachian Trail in bare feet to meet his goals. His father asked him “What’re you punishing yourself for?” and Zaleski shared the reasons for his personal crusade.

His father started crying then, an emotion so rarely seen by Zaleski that he only initially recognized it as a “strange noise.” Zaleski’s father it turned out, had been wearing a tremendous guilt for the last 60 years, stemming from his short time in the European theater of combat: the guilt of watching men serving five years and being killed on the final days of the war when he had only served five months; the trauma of watching 12-year-old boy soldiers, “Hitler’s Wolfpack,” being shot down by his comrades; using soap made from dead Jews. His father’s revelations underscored the sense of urgency in Zaleski’s “Long Walk Home.”

“If you can get a guy (the appropriate counseling) right when he gets out he has a much better chance,” Zaleski says. Speaking of the estimated 175,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. he adds, “For a guy who put his life on a line to be under a bridge drinking his memories, that doesn’t make it for me.”

So far his progress has been minimal. Maybe four or five thousand signatures he guesses. And Zaleski doesn’t want to simply create awareness. He wants real change. “If I tell somebody their house is on fire but I don’t help them, what good is that?” Zaleski wonders. Of the politicians he’s encountered, most have written off his cause because they aren’t his representative. “They (the politicians) say nice things to my face,” Zaleski says brashly, but they eventually just ask him “are you my constituent?” and when he answers incorrectly they decline to latch on to his cause. “A soldier didn’t fight for the North or South or New Jersey or Kentucky,” Zaleski screams, “they fought for America.”

On a positive note though, Phil Roe, a Tennessee Congressman and former soldier himself, has decided that he wants to help champion Zaleski’s goals. They plan on meeting up in October when Roe can concentrate solely on Zaleski’s cause and not on the upcoming election.

But even if Roe turns out like almost all the other elected leaders he’s met, Zaleski’s not going to quit. “I question my sanity I really do. I realize if I do nothing, that’s crazier than doing something. I don’t want to pass this along to the next generation. I don’t want another mom to tell me about her lost son.”

You can follow his journey here.