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A military veteran visited Prineville while walking across the U.S. to raise veteran suicide and homelessness awareness

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY TOMMY ZURHELLEN - Tommy Zurhellen, shown on Millican Road, is walking across the country to raise awareness for veteran suicide and homelessness. He came through Prineville last week.

An average of 22 veterans commit suicide on a daily basis.

And that is how many miles a day Marist College English professor Tommy Zurhellen has committed to walking as he travels the country on foot from Portland to his home town of Poughkeepsie, New York.

He passed through Prineville on Easter weekend.

The VetZero walk, which began April 14 and is scheduled conclude later this summer on Aug. 23, is intended to raise veteran suicide awareness as well as awareness of veteran homelessness. Zurhellen hopes to raise $40,387 during his journey, the same number of homeless veterans living on the streets each night in America.

Because he is raising awareness of veteran homelessness, he has decided to make his journey a solo trek — no support vehicles or chaperones as the miles accumulate.

"Basically, I am a homeless veteran for 133 days," he remarked.

Prineville was chosen as one of many destinations due in part to the elevation of the community. Zurhellen explained that without having any support vehicles or anything besides a pack and a walking stick, it made sense to keep to as low of elevations as possible. He came to Crook County after passing through Warm Springs and Madras.

The VetZero traveler spent a night in the local Best Western and took in the sights while he was in town. He came away impressed — particularly by the local parks and the Crook County Courthouse.

"It's a beautiful town," he remarked. "It reminds me of Poughkeepsie in a lot of ways."

Once he set out east of Prineville, he walked down Millican Road toward U.S. 20, and ultimately toward Burns and beyond. Again, he marveled at the Crook County landscape.

"It's just some of the most beautiful country I have walked through in my entire life," he said.

Long journeys on foot are not a new thing for Zurhellen. He has hoofed it across Ireland a couple of times in his 50-year life.

But this trek is much more ambitious. He likens the walk across Ireland to a journey across New Jersey, something he could complete in about 10 days. This effort, by contrast, will require him to cover 22 miles daily for about four months.

"It scared me at first – I won't lie," he said.

But now that he is about two weeks in, he's feeling more and more confident in completing a successful journey across country – especially having managed to make it across a large portion of the Eastern Oregon high desert where towns are smaller and further apart.

"Going through towns like Riley and Brothers, you really have to plan it," he said. "The worst part about it — and I really didn't think about it when I started the walk — is water. You have to carry all of your own water."

In his hometown of New York, where there is seemingly a store on every other block, that would be easy, but when the towns are separated by 20 miles or more, that is a lot of water he needs to carry.

The other trouble spot, he figures, will be Wyoming where towns are likewise small and sparse.

Those who want to keep up with Zurhellen's journey can follow along with his journey on Facebook on his "VetZero" page. He posts daily updates with videos and pictures.

"I am still motoring," he said after his trip through Prineville. "It's still going pretty well."

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