When the Boston Marathon steps off on Monday, April 15, Marist College Professor Thomas Zurhellen will also be walking more than 20 miles that day. Unlike those marathoners, however, Zurhellen’s trek will continue another 22 miles the next day. And the next. And 130 more days after that.
Zurhellen’s mission, to solo hike across the entire country from Portland, OR, to Poughkeepsie, aims to raise awareness of veteran suicide and homelessness.
As for belongings, he’s bringing only what he can carry. That means no tent, and no planning ahead on where he’ll stay each night.
“I’m going to be a homeless veteran for 133 days,” says Zurhellen, who served in the Navy from 1991–97. “I’m just gonna figure it out, like millions of homeless do.”
Marist Professor Thomas Zurhellen speaks at the event announcing his solo hike from Oregon to Poughkeepsie, beginning April 15, to raise awareness about veteran issues.
A professor of English at Marist for the past 15 years, Zurhellen is also author of the Messiah Trilogy series of books. He initially embarked on a second sabbatical from Marist with an eye toward more writing. However, the recently appointed commander of Poughkeepsie’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170 found a different calling while volunteering through the post.
“I’ve seen first-hand the significant problems facing our veterans today, especially our younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “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.”
The VFW Post 170 has created a foundation — aptly named VetZero — to raise funds to support veterans. The VetZero website has a video trailer promoting Zurhellen’s walk. In homage to the film Rocky, Zurhellen wakes up, chugs a glassful of raw eggs, then heads outside to run up the street. The eggs, as well as the running, were just for the trailer. “I can’t run,” he says. “If I get chased by a bear, I’m dead.”
The goal of walking 22 miles has a sobering origin: recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistics say that every day in the U.S., 22 veterans take their own lives. Zurhellen’s fundraising goal of $40,387 mirrors the average number of homeless vets living on U.S. streets each night. Those funds will go to veteran-support programs and nonprofits like Hudson River Housing (HRH).
“Tommy’s done a tremendous job supporting us,” says Christa Hines, HRH executive director. “I’m inspired by his positive energy and selflessness.”
Zurhellen won’t always be alone on his walk. The first leg will be shared by an old Navy pal, and Zurhellen plans to visit VFW posts along his route and talk with other veterans. Well-wishers can follow VetZero’s Facebook page to track his journey and send letters to the post offices along his route. The professor, who is well known for his sense of humor in the classroom, had a special request: “I will also accept any and all donations of Nutter Butters.”
(L-R) Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison, Hudson River Housing Executive Director Christa Hines, Marist Professor Thomas Zurhellen, and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.