PORT TOWNSEND — Eli Smith, an Army veteran from Ohio, is taking a long walk to call attention to the plight of veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“I lost a few friends that I served with to PTSD and suicide, and I wanted to do something about it,” said Smith, 37, as he prepared to leave Port Townsend on Friday.
He had completed about half of his 13,000-mile walk to all four corners of the continental United States when he arrived in Port Townsend last week after reaching his second milestone at Cape Flattery a few days earlier.
Smith began his walk from Pensacola, Fla., in November. In San Diego, he stopped where the U.S.-Mexico border meets the Pacific Ocean, then headed north to Cape Flattery — the westernmost point in the lower 48 states — before turning east to travel across the North Olympic Peninsula.
After a trip home to Ohio to see his family and rest for the winter, he plans to return to Port Townsend in March and head east to the West Quoddy Lighthouse in Maine on the nation’s easternmost peninsula, then walk down the East Coast to Key West in Florida.
Along the way, he posts video updates and photos on his Facebook page, 4Cornershike, and answers people who write him there.
A website, 4cornershike.org, collects donations both for his walk and for 4 Corners Charities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that “aims to raise funds and professional services for our veterans in need” by “undertaking projects and events that incorporate public involvement with our veterans,” according to its website, www.facebook.com/4cornerscharities.
In Neah Bay, Smith met with members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said in a Wednesday video post.
“What a tremendous experience to listen to [the Makah’s] history,” he said.
“I’ve never seen forests like the forests out there,” he added.
He also noted another feature of the Peninsula: “It doesn’t rain hard here but just lightly, just all the time.”
Smith posted on Wednesday: “4,400 miles, 11 pairs of shoes, many Veterans helped, 4 backpacks, 1 cart, 2 rain forests, 3 deserts, 1 heat stroke, 1 hurricane relief mission, and 328 days later, I’ve come to the 2nd corner. There is still a long way yet to go but I am so thankful to all who have helped to make this journey possible so far! I love you all and I look forward to doing so much more good for our Veterans on my journey now to Maine!”
He plans to post video of his visit to Neah Bay soon, he said.
On Wednesday, Smith attended a meeting in the American Legion hall in Port Townsend, then spent the night in a donated hotel room and had dinner at the Old Whiskey Mill before leaving Friday afternoon.
Smith, who served in South Korea as a tank gunner before he was discharged in 2002, said he has wanted to undertake a walk since he first heard about a friend committing suicide.
He’d heard about others walking across the U.S. and wanted to do something different. A friend suggested walking to the four corners.
“Something about it just stuck,” Smith said.
So he sold everything, packed a bag and went to Florida to begin his trip.
“When I say I sold everything, I mean everything,” Smith said. “My pickup truck, my clothes, I gave my cats to my neighbor’s kids. I kept a box of stuff that’s sentimental, but all I’ve got is my gear.
“The goal is to make the public aware that our veterans need help, especially some of the older guys,” he said.
The 4 Corners Charities site says that “there have been reports that 22 Veterans and 1 active duty service member lose this battle and commit suicide every day.”
Vietnam veterans in particular are at the highest risk of suicide, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“I’m a big advocate of just calling a veteran you know, or sending a text,” Smith said. “Just ask how they are.”
Smith said on Friday he received his eighth message from a veteran who was considering suicide but changed his mind after finding his Facebook page or an article about his walk.
“That’s been overwhelming,” Smith said. “If I had just helped one person by the time this was all done, it would be worth it.”
Smith hasn’t just been walking on his trip. He said in some of the larger cities, he’s tried to get veterans together or at least help one person out.
In Las Vegas, he said he organized a dinner and took everyone out for dinner and drinks. He tells of buying a homeless veteran dinner and a hotel room to stay in for the night in Los Angeles.
“Going forward, we want to do more stuff like that,” Smith said.
Smith said he plans to fly home for the winter and wait to tackle the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains in the spring, rather than push through in the winter.
“I’d almost certainly die,” said Smith, who is traveling alone with no support vehicles.
Smith said he’s had a few near-death experiences on the trip. He was almost kidnapped in Texas, ran into more than a few rattlesnakes, had a minor encounter with a bear and nervously shared the road with logging trucks on his trek across the North Olympic Peninsula.
However, Smith said it’s not all bad. He ran into a herd of elk near Brinnon and witnessed hundreds of bald eagles near Neah Bay.
“There’s bald eagles all over the place out there,” Smith said in an awed tone in the Wednesday video post on his Facebook page. “I was in Ohio for 20 years and I’d seen [only] one.”
On his winter break, he also hopes to catch up on his writing.
“I’ve got so many stories of the people I’ve met,” Smith said. “Just crazy awesome experiences.”
He is looking forward to being with his mother, brothers, aunts and uncles, and daughter in Ohio for the holidays.
“It’ll be nice to be home since I haven’t seen my family since I started,” Smith said.
He hopes to spend the winter resting and collecting funds for the rest of the trip, which is funded completely by donations.
“I think I’m down to $100 or so now,” Smith said. “We’re looking for a couple sponsors. Nothing big, we’re not trying to raise $100,000 or anything, but the next leg is going to be awhile.
“I got through the South pretty quick. Once you hit west Texas, it’s pretty flat, but this next leg will be beautiful but less fun to walk.”
Aside from his own expenses, which are pretty minimal, Smith said he wants to do more events for veterans as he crosses the country to Maine.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone in this part of the state,” Smith said. “I’ve just felt so welcome.”
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at [email protected].