In November 2013, two Iraq veterans were holed up in a hotel in Pueblo, Colorado. They’d been walking since the previous August. Their trip began on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and they were attempting to raise money for a local nonprofit by walking to Los Angeles.
The weather outside the hotel was below zero degrees at night, and in the single digits at high noon. For days they talked about what their options were: They could walk to a town 40 miles down the road where they could find shelter, roughly a two-day task, and sleep outside in the subzero cold; or they could see if someone might give them a ride to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The whole idea behind this walk was the brainchild of Tom Voss, an Iraq veteran who returned to Wisconsin in 2005 after one year of deployment; he left the U.S. Army in 2006.
Before the beginning of the walk, Voss was working at Dryhootch, a coffee shop and nonprofit in Milwaukee that aims to help veterans transition back to civilian life by using peer-to-peer mentoring. He called up Anthony Anderson, a fellow Dryhootch employee and Iraq veteran, who like himself was suffering from aftereffects of his two deployments.
He said that he wanted to get away and think about his time in Iraq, and asked if he could borrow a backpack to do so.
“Immediately, the hamster woke up and started spinning the wheel in my head,” Anderson says of that first phone call. “When that conversation happened it was … like, 'This is your chance to do what you recognize you need for yourself.' From that conversation it was like, 'All right, let’s do this.'”
For the first time since leaving the Army, Anderson and Voss had a mission, a goal, an objective to achieve. They were going to go on a walk that would take them across the country, more than 2,300 miles. They would try to hit more than 100 cities in five months while raising money for their nonprofit back home and educating the public on veterans’ issues.
Both men hoped the time away from the daily stress of civilian life would give them a much-needed mental break and allow them to address any issues they had with their service.
Having spent a year in a war zone, losing friends and shooting at the enemy, Voss had a hard time connecting back to society.
“It was really easy for me to shut off all of my emotions and that was a tool we had to use in a combat zone to survive,” Voss says, adding it was extremely difficult for his girlfriend and him to communicate well. “The other person is trying to reach you, but you’re just not available because of whatever reason you find to shut down.”
Simple acts like falling asleep became arduous.
“When I got out [of the military], I would go buy a 30-pack and drink that to fall asleep,” Voss says.
Anderson wasn’t in much better shape when he returned from his second tour in Iraq, in 2007.
“I was a jerk,” Anderson says. “I would pick fights with people just so I could bring them down and get control.”
Anderson drove his wife crazy, he says. They had been married for a month before his first deployment, in 2004, and although they communicated through email during his mission, when he returned home in 2005, he felt like he had to get reacquainted with her.
And just as they were getting closer again, he went on his second deployment, in 2006. And they repeated the process all over again.
After returning home in 2007, Anderson was looking for a job and applied to work at Dryhootch. Voss was the man who interviewed him for employment. The interview quickly turned into a conversation, and they realized they shared a connection. They had both served in the Army. They both were in Iraq, at roughly the same time. They had both been infantrymen.
They quickly formed a friendship despite some personality differences.
Voss is quiet, thoughtful, and reserved. He originally wanted the walk to be a grand meditation of sorts. Anderson is talkative, more willing to start a conversation with a stranger, and an opportunist who saw the walk as a way to raise money and educate the public.
Throughout the trip they would talk about why they had enlisted in the military, what it would take for them to re-enter, and whether it was worth it. They would talk about whatever popped into their heads.
“He’d throw a couple hypothetical questions in the air just to see how I would answer them,” Voss says about Anderson.
Anderson says he would use hypothetical and “would you rather …” questions with the people they met. It was a way to get to know them and pick their brains.
People often opened up to the two men about their own experiences with combat or other veterans, and both men would listen. Most of the time, Anderson would drive the conversation while Voss would listen.
“That’s always been a joke,” Anderson says. “I say 1,000 words for every one he says."
Voss says the first several hundred miles of the walk were marked by heel-sized blisters, muscle soreness, and other physical challenges of walking all day long.
Since the beginning of their journey, they relied on strangers for food and shelter but not for transportation; instead, they walked the entire way. They told people in the beginning that they were going to walk all 2,300-plus miles, but the weight of their supporters back home started to wear on them. And they feared that if they continued walking, they might not survive the trip.
“Walking during the day when it’s freezing cold is one thing,” Anderson says, pointing out that the towns were farther apart in that region. It was often a 40-mile walk to the next settlement.
They didn’t have a tent. The few times they slept outside, they used their sleeping bags.
In Pueblo, Colorado, they reached out to people at home via email, texts, and phone calls to solicit help. But people back in Wisconsin didn’t seem to understand what the problem was.
“It wasn’t so much walking when it was 10 degrees out—it was sleeping outside when it was negative 25,” Anderson says. “They’re writing these emails to us from their heated homes, and they leave their heated homes and go get in their heated cars and drive to their offices, which were heated … we were working out in nature where there are vast open areas and you’re totally at the mercy of the weather.”
Winter in the Rocky Mountains was challenging, and it was only going to get worse. Should they try to keep walking or take a ride?
“We wanted to maintain the integrity of the trip,” Voss says. “We ended up having to take a ride … we were really torn about that decision.”
They called a fellow Iraq veteran named Mike Ulanski, whom they’d met in Colorado Springs days earlier. He brought his wife and two young children with him to pick up Anderson and Voss.
“We were not out there to prove how tough we were,” Voss says. “It was more about finishing it and the veterans’ issues that were going on.”
They wondered how people back home would react when they heard they took a ride.
“I always wondered, are people going to think we’re just bullshitters, like we said we were going to walk and now we’re getting a ride?” Anderson asks.
In the end they achieved their goal of walking to Los Angeles. It felt like the end of another deployment, the men say. Their mission was over, and now it was back to civilian life.
“It wasn’t until driving back and when we got home that we were really able to process this stuff,” Voss says, adding that at the time he was too exhausted to think about what they had just accomplished.
When they got home it was February 2014, and a ceremony to welcome them back took place in the same building where they had started.
Spectators packed the ballroom of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. The room was packed; people who arrived late had to stand against the wall. The local politicians and media were there.
And the two men continued to raise money for Dryhootch. After it was over, they ended up raising more than $105,000 for the nonprofit.
The experience sparked an idea for them. Much of the baggage they had accumulated during their years of service was finally off their shoulders. Now the two men are trying to start their own organization to help other veterans do the same thing.
The fledgling group is called Veterans Trek. It takes vets who struggle with transitioning to civilian life on walks that might range from a few miles to 40 miles or longer.
But just as the men left a piece of themselves in Iraq, they also left a piece of themselves on the road.
“I used to drive down roads and visualize, like, that pile of trash [as] a roadside bomb,” Anderson says. “Now I drive down and I’m like, ‘Is that shoulder wide enough for me to walk on it?’”
• Ricardo Torres wrote this article (a link to the original article here) for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Ricardo is a journalist based in Milwaukee.