College Professor to Walk Across America for Veterans

Julia Fishman
Professor Tommy Zurhellen

From Portland, Oregon to Poughkeepsie, New York, Professor Tommy Zurhellen’s walk is aimed at calling attention to veteran suicide and homelessness

April 10, 2019—Can one person change the world? A college professor aims to do that—one step at a time. Tommy Zurhellen, Associate Professor of English at Marist College and the Commander of the Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Poughkeepsie, is undertaking a solo hike across America during spring and summer 2019 to raise awareness on the issues of both veteran suicide and veteran homelessness.

22 Miles Per Day

Zurhellen's goal is to walk an average of 22 miles each day, to recognize the recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistic that every day in America, 22 veterans take their own lives. The journey will begin in Portland, Oregon on April 15, and is scheduled to end almost 3,000 miles later with a ceremony on the Marist campus in Poughkeepsie, New York in late August. Cities along the route include Boise, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Sioux City, Iowa; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Flint, Michigan; Buffalo, New York and finally Poughkeepsie. Zurhellen will carry only a minimal amount of supplies. He will not have a tent and will sleep outside on nights where no one can take him in.

The project has a fundraising goal of $40,387, which is also the average number of homeless veterans living on the streets each night in America. All funds raised will go directly to programs that support veterans.

The cause is very personal for Zurhellen, a Navy veteran. He will be visiting dozens of other VFW posts along the route, to talk with veterans and their families. In addition, Zurhellen has invited other veterans to join him in walking various sections of the journey across America.

The Goal is Zero

Today, at a send-off event at the Marist campus, Zurhellen talked about the project, which he undertook as part of a sabbatical to explore how one person can make a difference. 

“As Commander of the Poughkeepsie VFW over the past year, I've seen first-hand the significant problems facing our veterans today, especially our younger veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Most folks don't fully realize the extent of serious issues like suicide and homelessness affecting our returning heroes. Our goal should be zero: zero veteran suicides, and zero veteran homelessness. We simply need to do a better job of taking care of our veterans.” To reach this goal of zero, Zurhellen's own VFW Post 170 in Poughkeepsie has recently created a foundation aptly named VetZero, to raise funds for local programs that provide support and assistance for veterans.

Tommy Zurhellen on the Marist College Poughkeepsie campus

Marist and the Social Good

Alongside his active role in Poughkeepsie's veteran community, Zurhellen, 50, has taught writing at Marist College for the past fifteen years. Service to the community and the world has always been an integral part of the foundation of a Marist education, and Zurhellen hopes this challenge will motivate his students to seek out their own ways to change their world. “By undertaking this challenge, I want to send a message to all our young people, especially my students at Marist: don't wait for someone else to give you permission to try and change the world. Just get out there and do it.”

“Tommy’s project is the embodiment of Marist’s commitment to the social good,” said Executive Vice President Geoffrey Brackett. “We applaud his mission and are excited to support his goal. Marist has many student veterans on campus and, as an institution, we understand the struggles veterans face everyday.”

Professor Zurhellen's walk across America will be chronicled through a VetZero website, on Facebook and Twitter offering daily updates on life on the road, as well as a gofundme page dedicated to raising funds for local programs that benefit veterans. Anyone who walks with Zurhellen is encouraged to use #walkthewalk.

Zurhellen’s trek is supported by Marist, Hudson River Housing, and Vet 2 Vet Dutchess. 

About VetZero

VetZero is the veteran service project of VFW Post 170 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The organization’s mission is to raise awareness on important issues facing returning heroes today. Learn more here.

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