Veteran Ron Zaleski founded the non-profit The Long Walk Home to draw attention to the need for mental health treatment for returning veterans. He came through Sacramento last week.
What brings you to Sacramento today?
I came to hand-deliver a petition to the governor to ensure that all military personnel get counseling prior to discharge. We have a three-point petition which is on our website, TheLongWalkHome.org. We want grieving and loss of life and limb counseling before they even get out of boot camp to help prepare them, just like the policemen and the firemen. We want mandatory counseling for them before they get discharged. They’ll never have enough counselors to take care of it the way they are. We do it in a seminar series, then everyone gets it and we give them tools.
The last part is, we’ve been asking the families of those that have committed suicide to start support groups. I’ve been asking veterans to be mentors for these young men and women coming out. How can you tell your parents about what youve seen and done? You can’t. You feel guilty. You feel judged. One of your peers isn’t going to judge you. He knows.
I’ve heard all these people say, “They knew what they were getting into.” Please. You’re driving with your family and you get into an accident and everybody is killed but you. You knew what could happen if you get in a car. Don’t come crying to me. I try to put it where they can understand it. You put any human under that kind of stress, it’s going to affect them.
We’ve made such a stigma out of PTSD. They’ve done that with every war. What soldier is going to say he has a problem? They build you up and make you tough and then they say, “What, you have a problem?” There are other ways they discourage it. There’s a lot of guys who just need a few tools. You don’t go into the military and say, “I’m in great shape and I know how to use a weapon. I’m not going to boot camp. Give me a weapon and send me over.” When you’re getting out, they say, “Do you need any help?” and they say, “No, I’m gonna go play with my kids, cut the grass and have a beer.”
Are you a veteran?
Yes, I was in the Marines, 1970 to ’72. My orders got changed. I was supposed to go to Vietnam with five others. A month before I got out I found out they were all shot. Two were dead. God was watching over me.
Tell me about the walk.
I’ve been doing it barefoot and I carry this sign that says, “18 vets a day commit suicide across the country.” I do it barefoot to honor those who have consecrated this ground with their blood. It’s the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is the incarcerations, the family abuse, the drug and alcohol abuse, the homelessness. The guys that come home and supposedly have no problem but have a dysfunctional family.
My father was in the military. We’re Polish. He cleaned out the ovens in Auschwitz. Probably cleaning our relatives off the floor. Saw 12-year-old boys being executed in the Wolfpack. My father drank every day of my life growing up, beat me every day, and branded me when I was 8. And he loved me.
He branded you?
When I was 8 years old. To see if I was tough. To prepare me for the world he saw.
I started in Concord, Mass., and I walked an unbroken line to Santa Monica Pier. Now we’re driving back and hitting every Capitol and delivering a petition to every governor. When I walked across this country, I thought I’d just be getting signatures. I thought the families that would step up would be the families of those that committed suicide.
One of my first days on the walk, a car did a u-turn, a woman gets out, stands there and cries, then tells me how she lost her son, then holds me like I was that child and cries on my shoulder. This was in Boston. What do you say? They’re not going to sign it because every single one of them said the same thing to me. “It’s my fault. He told me, I didn’t believe him.” They take all the guilt and the shame. If this was a flu, they would throw so much money at it. I walked 10 to 15 miles a day and I met a person almost every day who has a family member who has committed suicide. That’s an epidemic. And every person affects 25 to 30 people around them. Those kids are destroyed, that family usually breaks up. I met with the governor in Salt Lake City. He had been in the National Guard so he had an idea.
So what’s next?
We’re going to hand-deliver this petition to the president. We’re going to be speaking to the Committee on Veterans Affairs. We’re going to be coming back here June 25th and speaking at the Peace Pyramid. If anyone wants to get ahold of us, our contact information is on our website.