August 30, 2021 was a sweltering day, despite the promise, or the hope, that there would be some kind of reprieve from my own personal, portable sauna. I think the last time I sweated that much was, um, oh yea, August 29. However on this particular day, this discomfort of sweat seemed to take on a whole different reality. Rather than its normal mission of slowly sapping the energy from its host, on this day, sweat seemed to transform itself into a life-giving, life-saving force.
Ignoring the sun beating down, Greg C. Washington stood before me: affable, handsome, and clearly on a timeline. The subtle lilt of his southern accent was pleasing enough to bring a slight smile of familiarity to my face.(I knew I was smiling, because I could feel the sweat filling my facial wrinkles). Washington thanked me for taking a moment to speak with him about how he came to be, far from home, at Mercer County’s very own motel noir, the Sleepy Hollow Motel on Route 1 North. Until that moment, I only knew I was there to pick up everybody’s favorite farmer, Rob Flory (of Howell Living History Farm) who had promised to tell me more when I arrived. I had no expectation of meeting someone whose focus and dedication would challenge and prod the depth and commitment of my own convictions.
“A Walk to Honor” is Washington’s mission to raise awareness of the increased suicide rate among veterans and youth. Flory had heard about the walk and joined Washington for an hour on the road from Trenton up Route 1, then called to tell me this was a story I needed to hear.
“I started in Mound Bayou, Mississippi (a town that was established independently by former slaves),” Washington explained. “Made my way to Ft. Bragg North Carolina, turned north, and now I’m here in Trenton, New Jersey. The goal is to make it to West Point, New York by September 11th”.
This West Point Military graduate, an infantry officer, football player, and a veteran, is all too uncomfortably familiar with the realities of armed conflict and the residue it leaves on individual lives. Having been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and after losing two of his closest friends, he went on to share the difficulty of transitioning out of the military and back into civilian life.
“I lost my purpose when I stopped being a career officer. Since I was seventeen, all I wanted to be was in the military.”
The continuous blare from the trucks and cars on Route 1 ebbed and flowed behind us, it disturbed but did not distract, and I was drawn further into Washington’s story. He looked away and a brief nervous chuckle escaped as the highway noise swelled just for a moment.
“I lost two of my best friends while I was deployed.” The weight of that reality was visible in that moment. “My transition out was tough. I went into the corporate world and made a decent living, but I realized I wasn’t happy and, when I look back, my happiest moments were when I was serving, taking care of soldiers. And so, that’s what I got back to”.
But this is more than a man who was just unhappy in his day job. Washington remembers the struggle to get his feet under him after transitioning to life out of uniform. The specter of Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) is a living, breathing entity that continues to steal the hopes, dreams, and lives of countless veterans everyday. Washington said he knew that more needed to be done, so he began to formulate a plan to start a non-profit, perhaps do a podcast and a few speaking engagements.
“What pushed ‘A Walk to Honor’ ahead of schedule, was that I ended up losing one of my teammates to suicide. We saw him on Facebook Live. He took his life right in front of us. We couldn’t reach him. We couldn’t get to him”.
The bitter taste of that memory is clearly visible. Even now, it is hard for Washington to recount, as a truck roaring past seemed to provide a visual distraction, allowing Washington to glance away for a moment.
Standing a short distance away, was Washington’s father, an ebony-colored man, who was keeping a decidedly casual, but fatherly watch, over his son. Washington, Sr. mans a truck that bears a banner stating who this walking man is and what his mission is all about. At that moment, the father seemed to know exactly what we were talking about, and that brief encounter told me that the son did not go through this alone.
Washington’s 1,800-mile trek, which started in June, has not been undertaken casually. Both his father and his uncle have accompanied him on his mission, supporting him, greeting people, and staying the course.
“I started walking ahead of schedule and ahead of all plans. We’ve been walking and everybody that we meet, from day one to now, I’ve asked them to do this battle buddy check-in. It’s a challenge, just like the 22-push-up challenge.”
Washington encourages those he meets to call that one friend or family member that you haven’t spoken to in a while. “The reason why I say that is because, when I was transitioning out of the military and I was going through my most darkest moments, I had thoughts of suicide. I was almost going to….” Washington pauses here, clearly measuring his emotions, “…complete the act, (but) I got a phone call. It was my twelve-year-old cousin who called me. And that one phone call give me enough time to breathe, and to think, and to know that suicide wasn’t the way.”
During his “A Walk to Honor,” Washington has encountered a varied collection of people. There have been legislators and congressmen in D.C., folks attending a rally in Philadelphia, and even a farmer from Hopewell. To all, he’s encouraged them to be “battle buddies” to someone. He also shared that soaring rates of veteran suicides, whose numbers will only increase as vets return from Afghanistan and Iraq, deeply concern him. He urges everyone he meets to be a lifeline to veterans who are struggling.
“Before we make it to West Point, I’ll stop in New York City and visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. It’s been twenty years and I haven’t been able to bring myself to go and see it”.
For Washington, the visit to the Memorial site signifies the completion of a circle that started in 2001 when he entered West Point just before September 11, 2001 and the start of the US involvement in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is scheduled to arrive at West Point on September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the attacks in the US and the impetus for where we are now.
The visit will serve as both an opening, and a closing of sorts, for Washington. He will be able to encourage the new class of freshmen, most of whom are just beginning their military careers as our involvement in the current conflict is seemingly at an end. He wants to tell them that there are soldiers who are looking out for them, both physically and mentally. He wants them to find and keep battle buddies. He wants them to know that Emily Perez, the soldier for whom their basic training program is named, was his friend and that she paid the ultimate price. Above all, he wants them to know that he and others are working hard to ensure that there are services available for them when they transition back into civilian life, whether or not they are coming from a conflict zone or not. He also is working on programs for vets and others, that address issues like quality of life, mental health, suicide prevention, PTSD and culturally sensitive therapies.
It was clear that our time had reached an end as Washington’s uncle was now out of the truck. He said “thank you” to me, grabbing my hand with both of his. I said “thank you” to him. Looking at Flory, who was clearly thinking of his own son who had entered the marines a few months earlier, I could tell this was meaningful for him. As they gave each other a “bro hug”, I wondered what they had spoken about on their hour-long walk from the Trenton Battle Monument to the Sleepy Hollow Motel. Rob later told me that when he found out about Washington’s “A Walk to Honor” he had done his best to make sure that he would be in Trenton when Washington walked through.
In a few days, Washington will arrive in West Point, supported by his father and uncle, and having sweated his way to his alma mater to let the incoming class know that they are cared for and they are seen. Every mile of the 1,800 plus that he has walked, represents at least one soldier who has lost her/his life to suicide or is suffering through the ravages of PTSD, so lost and purposeless there seems to be no tomorrow for them. Washington let me know that every step, every breath, every bead of sweat had meaning, because every life, indeed, has value. He is walking eighteen hundred miles to make sure we know that.
Go call someone.
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