U.S. Veteran Eli Smith will spend the next two and half years on the road, technically homeless, with nothing but his massive backpack and the grace of giving citizens to sustain him – if all goes according to plan. Smith is on a 13,000 mile mission to walk the four corners of America raising awareness for veteran Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide.
While passing through Corvallis this past Saturday, Smith took the time to sit down with me for breakfast at Broken Yolk Cafe. Sitting with us was Jon Neumann, a local former marine on a similar mission. Neumann, like Smith, raises PTSD and suicide awareness, though on a local level, selling one-of-a-kind t-shirts and donating profits to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Mission 22.
Neumann’s UncertainTees offer a fresh breath of Oregon weird. His best-selling shirt features a sloth on roller skates wearing aviators and slurping a smoothie. Runner-ups are the sword fighting pickles, and the monocle-wearing muffin with a top hat and mustache.
Some Quick Statistics
The Mission 22 website states that, on average, 22 veterans will take their lives each day. That totals to about 8,030 veterans lost to suicide in a year, not counting the suicides that go unreported. An examiner must be able to determine that the deceased intended to die for a death to be reported as a suicide.
The same day I met with Smith and Neumann, the Department of Veteran Affairs released findings that show a 22 percent increase in suicide risk among US Veterans when compared with US adult non-Veterans.
Veterans are particularly vulnerable to suicidal ideation and PTSD from exposure to in-combat trauma. Even knowing someone who’s committed suicide is said by some studies to increase a person’s risk of suicide – and chances are if you’re a veteran, you know someone. That’s where it all started for Neumann, who began his t-shirt business following the death of a friend he was deployed with during his four years as a marine.
So far, Neumann and Smith are strong in their accomplishments. Neumann made $500 in his first two nights selling UncertainTees shirts, and he donated it all back to Mission 22 and AFSP. Meanwhile, Smith has been spreading awareness all over, seeking and being sought by unique people and organizations supporting veterans. He’s even been party to some suicide interventions, recalling one message he received from a vet who was moments away from pulling the trigger, posting a goodbye on Facebook. Someone responded with a link to Smith’s 4 Corners page, which ultimately persuaded the vet to put down the gun.
Smith reaches people wherever he treads, virtually and in the flesh. He continually posts live feeds to his Facebook page, among things like random thoughts throughout his journey. My favorites so far are “I used to take ice cubes for granted,” “Not much is known about Bruce Wayne’s teenage years,” and, “I wish they would bring back Jell-O pudding pops.”
Not once, Smith said, has he ever wanted to give up and go home, though there have been hardships along the way; like missing his family, and that time he almost got kidnapped in Texas (to be continued… ).
Presently, Smith’s headed to Seattle for his second corner. His first corner was where the Pacific Ocean meets the Mexican border. Nearby, in San Diego, he felt the presence of destiny when finding the Patriot Tattoo parlor, where he received the first quadrant of what will be a four-part representation of the United States on his forearm. Smith intends to get the other three filled in along the way. In return for the tattoo, the artist asked Smith for a single cigarette. He insisted on buying him a pack.
The people Smith meets are not just incredibly giving, they are brave and lively. Take the guy who assists veterans in handling birds of prey, or the handless vet with a special prosthetic for dirt biking, who helps build off-road vehicles for veterans from scratch.
Smith admits he sometimes gets spoiled. Like when he got to dine at a Michelin 3-star restaurant, or when he got to drive a top-of-the-line tanker outside El Paso, taking him back to the glory days he spent stationed as a tank gunner in South Korea.
Las Vegas was by far Smith’s most productive stop, where he met various veterans, congressmen, and state representatives, and where he finally managed a family visit from his two brothers. A few firemen learned that Smith missed his family most, and quickly raised funds to fly his brothers to Vegas. The fire chief himself picked them up.
A dentist in Vegas even offered Smith free dental work after he’d cracked a tooth in New Mexico. “[The dentist] cleaned me up, redid all my fillings, gave me a crown, and sent me on my way.”
“I’m telling you,” he continued, “People are amazing. Absolutely amazing.”
Smith even had the opportunity to learn a few tricks from UFC fighter Randy Couture, after the kidnapping incident (which, I promise, I’ll get to). Couture showed Smith a few moves he could make wearing his massive backpack.
He also met Courtney Cox at a farmers market in California, and received a private call from Ted Nugent, inviting him to hang out. Smith missed that particular opportunity, but it’s alright. His four corners walk isn’t about chance encounters with celebrities.
“One of the messages I’m trying to convey… outside of the awareness for veterans, is that we’re all good people. This stuff that the media’s on right now, of only showing crime and the bad apples of the country, that’s not representing America very well,” he said.
So okay, Smith admitted there are some bad apples. Like the woman who tried kidnapping him.
And Finally, The Almost-Kidnapping Incident
Smith was walking down an endless stretch of road in middle-of-nowhere Texas when a woman pulled over a total of three times, trying to lure him into her truck.
“The third time she just snapped and pulled up screaming,” said Smith.
The woman screamed for Smith to “get in the truck” repeatedly until he threatened to call the police.
“So she just stopped screaming, [got] real calm and said, ‘Go ahead and call the police. They won’t get here in time.”
Luckily, after repeating the woman’s license plate to the 911 dispatcher, she fled. But his otherwise strange and alarming encounters don’t end there.
In Mississippi, Smith was approached by a guy in a Dodge Neon who asked him candidly if he’d ever been “pleasured by a man before”, then if he wanted to. He politely declined. Others invited him to Thanksgiving dinner and offered to wash his clothes.
At the time we spoke, Eli Smith had walked 4,000 miles, with 9,000 left to go. He started his trek on November 22 of 2016, has gone through ten pairs of shoes – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Jon Neumann is exactly where he wants to be, selling quirky shirts for a cause, while juggling an 80-mile commute for 34 credits-worth of Chiropractic learning in graduate school, and a job as a Skills Trainer at a nearby residential campus for teens with mental and behavioral deficits.
This August marked the first anniversary of another suicide that compelled Neumann to raise awareness – the completion of a 15-year-old resident at the facility where Neumann works. According to him, most of money he’s raised is from co-workers, many of them affected to some degree by this loss.
Neumann wears his sloth shirt while posing for a picture with Smith – sporting his own t-shirt design he sells online. Before we all part ways, Neumann gifts Smith some UncertainTees swag and business cards.
Neumann, Smith, all these people, here, there, across the globe, doing the best they can to remedy the hopelessness felt by veterans and others alike. They make you proud to be an American – or actually just proud.
Now, how ‘bout we turn off the negative news, and tune in?
Keep up with Smith by following him on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/
By Stevie Beisswanger