Veterans walk 60 miles to shed light on challenges vets face

RUSTON, Wash. -- When the ferry Salish docked at Point Defiance Tuesday afternoon, the usual trickle of pedestrians and cars began to filter off the boat and into the terminal.

On the horizon, three large American flags appeared bobbing in the distance, like three buoys in a sea of normalcy. Each flag, though, was tethered to a soldier, and each soldier was tethered to an emotional journey.

"I haven't been back there," said Will Carroll, fighting back tears.

"When I left, I just" he said, his voice trailing off, his words quivering. "I haven't been back (to the base)."

To say Carroll's 60-mile walk back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord was an emotional one Monday would be an understatement.

Flanked by friends Chess Johnson and Andy Britt, it's just like when the three were in Iraq in 2003 and then later in 2006; only, this time, Johnson is missing his right eye, and all three bear the emotional scars of war.

"It just didn't seem real," Britt says, recalling his time in Iraq. "It's nothing you'll see in America. Kind of apocalyptic."

Britt, who admits he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, says his diagnosis is one of the major reasons he decided to join Johnson and Carroll in making the nearly 60-mile trek from Naval Base Kitsap to Lewis-McChord.

The group started on Sunday in Bremerton and hoped to wrap by nightfall on Veterans Day in Lakewood, although they stopped along the way to talk to strangers about PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and the high rate of suicide among soldiers returning from war.

"That guy gets back from war -- he's treated like a hero for a day 'til you find out he's got PTSD," Britt said. "Then he's the crazy guy. Then no one wants to be around him."

"Six years ago, I had a doctor walk into Walter Reed (Hospital) and state that I would never intelligently communicate or walk again," Johnson said. "I fell into alcoholism. (But now,) no matter what obstacle's in front of me, I'm better than that. I'm bigger than it."

Johnson and the group spent more than an hour walking down Pearl Street in Ruston Monday afternoon, making their way towards Lakewood in the brilliant sunshine. Cars honked, while a couple of kids -- off from school because of the holiday -- paused during a football game to watch the large American flags pass by.

"I just think it was awesome," said Taras Snitko, an 11-year old who stood on a fence to watch the group march past. "Sixty miles -- I couldn't do that."

Johnson remarked that he had blisters on his feet -- and at least 10 miles to go -- Monday afternoon, but that the walk -- and the message -- were well worth it.

"Let's take care of the people who have fought and defended our freedom," he said.