Veterans find support on 56-mile trek
ALBANY — A dozen veterans from the U.S. Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy, along with three civilians arrived at the state Capitol in Albany on Monday morning after a 22-hour walk from Kingston through parts of Greene County.
Organized by the Hudson Valley Center for Veteran Reintegration’s Vet2Vet of Ulster County program, the 56-mile walk kicked off at 11:30 a.m. Sunday with addresses delivered by guest speakers at Tech City in Kingston. Participants traveled up Route 9W through four counties and 12 towns.
Vet2Vet Project Manager Gavin Walters described the experience as “amazing.”
“Along the way, it was just amazing, people would step in and walk with us for a mile, four miles, five miles,” Walters said.
Jessica Bugbee, a peer-to-peer counselor with the program, said several people, including some veterans, stopped their cars to ask about the walk.
“New bonds were formed among the service members and among the communities,” Bugbee said. “And we brought the dialogue around veterans’ mental health.”
In addition to raising awareness, getting veterans engaged with the community is another priority, Bugbee said.
“The focus is to bring veterans together through community events such as [the walk,]” Bugbee said. “Everyone is yearning for their community. [Veterans] leave the military and looking are for their tribe.”
Bugbee served as a medic in the U.S. Army for seven years and was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Walters is also a veteran and served in the Air Force.
Walkers were unfazed by the weather and the marathon-length of the walk, Walters said.
“When you walked [through the night], you didn’t feel the temperature at 50-52 degrees,” he said.
Although the group missed Saturday’s thunderstorms, Walters said it would not have affected their plans.
“We definitely would have walked rain or shine,” he said.
The walkers arrived at the Capitol about 15 minutes after their estimated arrival time, Walters said.
“The time wasn’t even something that was in our minds,” he said. “We wanted to accommodate everybody.”
A support van, donated by Sawyer Motors, accompanied the group and was staffed by three veterans.
“Any time we needed the help, the support, they were right there,” Walters said.
The van was stocked with water donated by Ulster County Savings Bank, water and Gatorade from the Ulster County Mental Health Association, and sandwiches, granola and water from local Girl Scout troops, Walters said.
The group received police escorts by various agencies throughout the trip, including the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
“We had police and EMS support the entire way, it was pretty phenomenal,” Bugbee said. “It was a dualistic experience; we were super grateful for the cops and in turn they were really grateful for us as well. The community involvement was beautiful.”
Several businesses helped make the walk possible by providing a spot for the group to rest, Bugbee said.
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, was among the walk’s opening speakers in Kingston.
“Our veterans and their families have sacrificed for our freedoms and American values, and we honor their service by ensuring they have the resources and treatment needed during these challenging times,” Delgado said.
Veterans undertook an arduous trek from Kingston to Albany to raise awareness and support for veterans’ health and well-being programs that treat the myriad of challenges veterans live with every day following their service, Delgado said.
“We must do the work to support our veterans and their families,” Delgado said. “I will keep fighting at the federal level to ensure veteran organizations in our community have the resources they need to continue for years to come.”
Five flags, each representing a branch of the military services, which had been carried on the 56-mile journey, were presented at the closing ceremony in Albany to veterans or active service members.
Thirty percent of military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition and fewer than 50% of veterans with these conditions receive mental health treatment after returning home, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. An estimated 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
A survey conducted in January 2019 showed that 37,085 veterans nationwide were homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
About 284,000 veterans were unemployed in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The center is planning to make Walk-A-Mile In My Shoes an annual event, Walters said.
Another event for veterans, the Vets-on-Water program, is scheduled for Sept. 5, when veterans will take a 315-mile kayak journey from Lake Tear of the Clouds, in Essex County, to Manhattan.
In Manhattan, kayakers will visit Ground Zero. Other programs for veterans at the center include the Kayak Program, Warrior Writers, Financial Readiness Class and Veteran Peer Support Program.