Army veteran Eli Smith in Ellsworth on May 22. Smith is walking and biking to the four corners of the United States to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY KATE COUGH

Veteran on trek for PTSD awareness makes stop in Ellsworth



ELLSWORTH — When Eli Smith sat down next to a pretty, dark-haired woman at a farmers market in California, he thought she looked vaguely familiar, maybe a bit like a movie star.

“But everybody’s beautiful in Los Angeles,” Smith said.

The woman asked about his backpack and gear; he explained his three-year journey, walking and biking more than 15,000 miles to all four corners of the United States to raise awareness for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It wasn’t until she got up to leave and someone called her name that he placed her.

“I just had lunch with Monica from ‘Friends’!” Smith shook his head.

He was referring to actress Courteney Cox, one of the stars of the former NBC sitcom.

“We keep in touch,” Smith said. “She texts me sometimes.”

Smith is a tall man with a round face and a thick, on-again, off-again beard. He wears a bike helmet decorated with the stars and stripes and an American flag bandanna to protect his face from the sun and rain. He’s friendly and approachable (maybe the result of so many months relying on the kindness of strangers) and eager to share his story with anyone who asks.

“I was a tank gunner stationed in South Korea,” said Smith, between bites of a cheeseburger and chicken nuggets at Wendy’s in Ellsworth on May 22. “When I got out it was ‘here’s a plane ticket, thanks.’”

After serving, Smith came home to Columbus, Ohio, and watched as several of his veteran friends struggled.

“I lost a couple of guys I served with to suicide,” Smith said.

He wanted to do something to raise awareness, but didn’t know what that would look like, until one of his friends came up with an idea: go to the four corners of the United States on what Smith calls “an awareness journey.”

At first, Smith thought the idea was “pretty crazy.” His mom told him in “colorful language” that she was fairly certain he’d be eaten by a bear. But the more he thought about it, the more a journey of this kind made sense, as a way to raise awareness and as a stepping-stone in Smith’s own life.

So Smith spent three months ridding himself of possessions, winnowing his assets down to what could be carried in a backpack.

“That was rough, when it’s everything you own,” Smith said.

Finally, in late November of 2016, Smith flew from his mother’s house in Ohio to Pensacola, Fla., and began walking.

He walked for months: across Louisiana and Texas, through Arizona and up the West Coast, all the way to Washington. He camped along the way, or stayed in hotels when he could afford it, and spent a lot of time on the phone: coordinating the next step, alerting veterans organizations and media outlets to raise money and awareness.

He spoke at VFW halls about PTSD and tried to spread the message that hadn’t been delivered to many of his fellow veterans: there is no shame in getting help.

“They’re doing a lot better job now compared to our Vietnam veterans,” Smith said. But the tide has yet to slow: every day, there are roughly 20 suicide deaths among veterans, according to a New York Times article.

In a single week this April, three veterans killed themselves on Department of Veterans Affairs health care properties.

Smith doesn’t blame the staff at the Veterans Affairs offices.

“There’s a lot of people that care but some aren’t run like others,” he said. The bureaucracy involved in trying to get help can be overwhelming, he added.

Smith stopped walking in Washington and picked up a bike, which he’s been riding ever since. He said he has gotten 19 letters and several messages from veterans who told them they have “changed their minds about suicide,” since coming across his page, including one man who wrote that he had been saying goodbye to his friends when he came across Smith’s page.

“A share or a like, how much does it really do?” Smith wondered aloud. “But in that case it literally saved a life.”

Smith said that despite the risks, he would still advocate a career in the armed services.

“I think every man should go in for two years,” he said. “Then I think they should work in a restaurant for two years. There’s a respect and gratitude installed in you in the military that I think can’t be found anywhere else.”

Asked about his favorite place he’s seen, Smith is quick to answer.

“My mom’s house in the winter. That’s some good times,” he said.

But Maine has been good to him, Smith said. People are friendly, although the weather could be better.

“It’s been 30 to 50 degrees and raining. I’ve been soaked.”

He plans to bike to West Quoddy Head, the easternmost point in the United States, before turning around and heading to the tip of Florida. He is still raising money (he’s down to $76) and expects to be off the road by October.

During the short time Smith was sitting at Wendy’s on Wednesday afternoon, several people inquired about his journey. A manager handed him a Frosty Dairy Dessert and thanked him for serving, a few glanced curiously at his bicycle, reading the explanatory note hung from its side.

One woman walked up and handed Smith a $5 bill. “For the cause,” she said.

“I had three sons who served. One of them had a hard time,” she continued quietly. Smith asked how her son was doing now.

“Better,” the woman answered.

“That’s good,” Smith said. The woman nodded silently, thanked Smith again, and walked away.

To follow Smith, visit 4cornershike.org.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Digital Media Strategist
Kate is the paper's Digital Media Strategist, responsible for all things social, and the occasional story too! She's a former reporter for the paper and can be reached at: [email protected]
Kate Cough

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