Tommy Zurhellen's mission is zero veteran suicides and zero homeless veterans

HOPEWELL — Heading into the Canandaigua area via Route 96 on his way to Routes 5 and 20, Tommy Zurhellen knew he was close to his stopping point — the Naked Dove microbrewery.

Four months of walking every day while making his way cross country, trying to average 22 miles a day, gives a walker a keen sense of distance. So when he turned the corner and saw the sign — let’s just say anytime you see the end of a journey, it’s a great feeling.

“Even four months in,” Zurhellen said.

Zurhellen, 50, still has a ways to go before the “real” end of his journey in about 10 days, but this pit stop at the microbrewery doubled as a rest stop and reunion for the Marist College educator and veterans advocate.

Zurhellen embarked on his walk across America to draw attention to the plight of homeless veterans because, he cracked, he can’t sing or dance.

“Because I’m crazy,” Zurhellen said by way of another explanation. “This seemed like the impossible challenge that didn’t seem impossible to try.”

But he cares about veterans, so much so that as commander of the Poughkeepsie Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170, he received call after call about veterans needing help and he became so frustrated that he couldn’t take it anymore.

That’s when he asked the question, can one person change the world? Prompting another, why not?

And so on April 15 the Navy veteran began to walk 22 miles a day — which, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, is the number of veterans who take their life every day. He started in Portland, Oregon, on his way back home to Poughkeepsie.

“Portland to Poughkeepsie — it sounded natural,” said Zurhellen, who ought to appreciate alliteration as an associate professor of English. “Seattle to Poughkeepsie doesn’t have the same zing to it.”

Paul Hartley, who served with him in the Navy and who is a college buddy of Naked Dove Brewmaster David Schlosser, joined Zurhellen on the first day in Portland.

Hartley decided to fly out from Portland to meet up with Zurhellen and Schlosser at Naked Dove, which hosted a fundraiser for Zurhellen on Monday for his arrival in town.

Zurhellen’s trek has a practical purpose as well. He is trying to raise $40,387, which is the average number of homeless veterans in the U.S, for veterans programs.

Schlosser learned about the journey from a Facebook post that Hartley shared with him. When he saw that Zurhellen would be coming through Canandaigua, it was a no-brainer for him to try and support those who have served in the military.

Schlosser said $1,000 was raised at the brewery in pints, tastings and direct donations on Monday night. Another $450 was raised by customers who could not attend the gathering.

Besides meeting with people and answering questions, Zurhellen was able to catch up a bit with Hartley.

“On the first day of the walk, Tom and I talked about how cool it would be to fly out and help him finish,” Hartley said. “I didn’t want to do the last day because I wanted him to have that glory to himself.”

Zurhellen said he has the aches and pains one might expect of someone walking across the country, but at this point, “it feels like it’s all gravy.”

He said that before he and Hartley walked to Geneva on Tuesday on his way to Ovid on Wednesday. Ithaca, where he plans to participate in an event for homeless veterans, is in his sights for Friday.

“I stopped worrying about being sore,” Zurhellen said. “I wake up sore. I go to bed sore. But every day you want to quit and just go home, you remember the real pain of all those veterans and then it doesn’t feel so bad.”

One of the things he’s discovered is that it’s dangerous to walk across America, whether breathing diesel fumes or avoiding drivers intent on their cell phones and not the road.

Among the other lessons learned?

“It’s expensive to be homeless in America,” Zurhellen said. “I’ve spent a lot of money just to eat and drink.”

That said, Zurhellen will relish the interactions he’s had with people on the road. Complete strangers would come up and ask if he was OK and if he needed anything, he said.

And once they found out why he is walking, many would begin to tell about their friends’ and families’ experiences as veterans.

“One issue we can all agree on,” Zurhellen said. “We can do a better job for our veterans.”

As for answers to those initial questions that helped prompt the journey, Zurhellen doesn’t have any — at least not until he’s finished and had time to reflect on his experiences.

“We’ll have to wait,” Zurhellen said.

Zurhellen is due back in Poughkeepsie on Friday, Aug. 23. He resumes work at Marist College the following Monday.

“It’s going to be a rough transition,” Zurhellen said.