Anyone who passed Ron Zaleski during his walk through Riverhead Monday would be hard-pressed not to think about the message plastered across the sandwich board sign he was wearing — it reads 18 vets a day commit suicide.
That sobering statistic is exactly what the 60-year-old U.S. Marine and once owner of Peconic Health and Racquet Club in Flanders wanted people to think about during his barefoot march through town as he raises awareness for his non profit, The Long Walk Home. The organization calls for mandatory grief counseling as part of the military boot camp experience, the institution of a civilian re-entry program for all returning soldiers as well as peer support groups.
He is also circulating a petition that seeks to institute those programs. Mr. Zaleski plans on presenting it to President Obama on his 61st birthday, which is coincidentally Veteran’s Day 2011.
“Everybody who comes back from war alive, they have survivor’s guilt,” Mr. Zaleski, a Vietnam veteran said, cars honking as he walked along East Main Street.
He knows that fact from first-hand experience.
In the 1970’s, Mr. Zaleski of Hampton Bays drew a low draft number which all but ensured he would be able to avoid fighting in the Vietnam war. But as a rebellious teenager he enlisted anyway as a way to hurt his stern father.
Though he was originally set to go to war, his deployment order changed and five other men in his outfit were sent to Vietnam while he stayed in the U.S. All five were shot and two never made it home alive.
He said his has never gotten over his survivor’s guilt and goes shoeless as a way to remember his fallen comrades.
“I was punishing myself,” he explained.
He spent the next 30 some odd years an angry and sometimes belligerent man, he said.
“When you’re the one in trouble, you don’t see anything wrong,” he said.
It wasn’t until a child asked him in 2006 why he chose to go barefoot that he realized that his form of remembrance was not doing much for his fellow soldiers. In 2006, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot and met several influential people along the way. He has since spoke all over the country and embarked on a cross-country trek raising awareness for the cause.
Mr. Zaleski spent a large portion of 2010 and 2011 walking across the country wearing the same sign he wore in Riverhead this week.
He has since encountered many people who have lost loved ones who committed suicide after they were discharged, as well as soldiers who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“People have come to me and told me stuff they have never told nobody,” he said.
Mr. Zaleski does not take a stance on the politics of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and instead focuses on caring for soldiers after they return home.
“We’re not raised to kill people,” he said. “It’s not natural.”
When asked if he thought the campaign was making a difference in the world, Mr. Zaleski who now lives in Key Largo, Florida where he cares for his mother, said he thinks he is.
“I have changed. I’m part of this world,” he said. “I’ve made this world a better place.”
Mr. Zaleski will be at Slo-Jacks in Hamptons Bays Saturday starting at noon where his asking people interested in the cause to come sign the petition.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers counseling for veterans via its Veterans Crisis Line number at 1-800-273-8255. Those services, available 24 hours a day, can also be obtained by visiting VeteransCrisisLine.net.