Veteran suicides prompt epic trek

Submitted photoEli Smith, an Army veteran from Ohio, started a three-year, more than 13,000-mile journey in November 2016 to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and the prevalence of suicide among veterans. He walked more than 4,600 miles before switching to a bicycle. Smith spent Sunday night in Baker City.

Eli Smith sold everything he owned and set off on a three-year solo trek across America because he wanted people to know about his Army buddies, men who sacrificed something for which no value can be calculated.

Their lives.

It was only after Smith’s friends completed suicide that he came to understand how prevalent post-traumatic stress disorder is among veterans.

“Too many people don’t know that we’re losing an average of 20 veterans to suicide every day,” Smith said. “That’s too many.”

Smith, 38, who served as a tank gunner in South Korea before his discharge in 2002, decided he could remain silent no longer about the epidemic claiming so many of the men and women who protected America.

“I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what,” he said Sunday evening while dining on glazed chicken and white rice, his meal donated by the Golden Crown restaurant in Baker City.

“Chinese is a real treat,” Smith said with a grin. “I can’t tell you how many cheeseburgers I’ve had.”

His plan started to come together in early 2016.

Smith, who is from Columbus, Ohio, read about people who have walked or bicycled across the country to raise awareness about a worthy cause.

He was willing to walk.

But he didn’t have any idea about a route — until a friend suggested the Four Corners concept.

Smith’s friend didn’t mean the spot where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet.

He was referring, rather, to the notion of traveling to each of the geographic corners of the continental U.S. — in Florida, Washington state, Maine and California.

Smith said he liked the idea because so far as he could determine nobody had made that trip to raise awareness for any cause.

He started disposing of his possessions.

“Everything from my pickup truck down to my cats,” he said.

The day before Thanksgiving 2016, Smith started walking west from Pensacola, Florida, his destination San Diego.

He plotted a route that stayed near the country’s southern border, to take advantage of the milder weather during the winter.

Smith said he was 70 pounds heavier then, but the weight melted away rapidly as he plodded along with a 60-pound pack on his shoulders.

At first he not only walked alone but he also handled all the logistical details, often camping out wherever night overtook him.

Eventually people who came across his Facebook page — — or read or watched media stories about his journey offered to help arrange for donated motel rooms and restaurant meals.

Volunteers from Arizona, Illinois and Texas, among other places, have assisted Smith.

Although his focus is PTSD and the prevalence of suicides among veterans, Smith said his overriding goal is much broader.

“I’m trying to do as much as I can to help veterans — whatever that is,” he said.

In many communities he has met with officials from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall or American Legion post and contributed to their projects.

He helped one veteran pay for an oil change after overhearing the man saying his vehicle was past due for maintenance.

In another town he helped buy clothes and shoes for homeless veterans.

Sometimes Smith offers the simplest thing of all — his time and his sympathetic ear.

“I’ve had veterans who open up to me, and I feel pretty privileged,” he said. “Especially Vietnam vets, who usually don’t talk about their experiences.”

But by far the most rewarding result from his journey are the nine letters.

Smith received those letters from veterans who were afflicted with PTSD and pondering suicide when they learned about his 4Corners Hike campaign.

“They changed their mind about suicide,” he said. “So this trip really is saving lives.”

Although Smith intended to complete the more than 13,000-mile trip on foot, his knees and his back disputed that plan.

“I went through 16 pairs of shoes and four backpacks,” he said. “The same pair of pants, though — that’s the amazing thing.”

(That resilient garment was made by Kuhl, a company based in Salt Lake City.)

After walking more than 4,600 miles and reaching Cape Flattery, Washington, the northwesternmost point in the lower 48, Smith decided he would have to switch to a bicycle to complete his trip.

He stopped walking at the end of October 2017 in Olympia, Washington, and returned to Ohio to spend the winter with his family.

In February of this year Smith traveled to California, where he worked with veterans groups for about a month before resuming his sojourn, this time pedaling rather than hiking, in Las Vegas on March 17.

He rode north through Oregon to Olympia, so he could start from the precise point — literally the same door — where he had paused last fall.

The change in his route added about 3,000 miles to his original plan.

See more in the May 28, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.

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Jayson has worked at the Baker City Herald since November 1992, starting as a reporter. He has been editor since December 2007. He graduated from the University of Oregon Journalism School in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in news-editorial journalism.

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