A Hudson Valley Man Walked Across the U.S. for Veterans
Marist College professor Thomas Zurhellen embarked on a cross-country trek to raise awareness for veteran issues.
Thomas Zurhellen walks across the Walkway Over the Hudson.
Photos provided by Marist College Media Relations
Poughkeepsie’s VFW Post 170 Commander Thomas Zurhellen received a hero’s welcome on Friday as he completed 2,866 miles cross-country by traversing the Walkway Over the Hudson and walking through the gates of Marist College.
Zurhellen’s intention to walk a daily near-marathon of 22 miles from Portland, OR, to Poughkeepsie aimed to draw attention to the plight of homeless and mentally ill veterans, along with veteran suicides. Recent Department of Veterans Affairs statistics say that every day in the U.S., 22 veterans take their own lives. Zurhellen’s fundraising goal of $40,387 — which he surpassed — mirrors the average number of homeless vets living on U.S. streets each night. Those funds will go to veteran-support programs and nonprofits like Hudson River Housing and Vet2Vet, a program of Mental Health America of Dutchess County, both of which serve the specialized needs of former service members.
Marist Professor Thomas Zurhellen (center) traverses the Walkway Over the Hudson with a supportive community in Poughkeepsie.
As for belongings, he brought only what he could carry. That meant no tent, and no planning ahead on where the Navy veteran, who served as a nuclear electrician from 1991–97, would stay each night.
“I’m going to be a homeless veteran for 133 days,” said Zurhellen at a kickoff ceremony in April. “I’m just gonna figure it out, like millions of homeless do.”
A professor of English at Marist College for the past 15 years, Zurhellen is also author of the Messiah Trilogy series of books. He initially embarked on a second sabbatical from Marist with an eye toward more writing. However, the recently appointed commander of Poughkeepsie’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170 found a different calling while volunteering through the post.
“I’ve seen first-hand the significant problems facing our veterans today, especially our younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “Most folks don’t fully realize the extent of serious issues like suicide and homelessness affecting our returning heroes. Our goal should be zero: zero veteran suicides and zero veteran homelessness. We simply need to do a better job of taking care of our veterans.”
The VFW Post 170 has created a foundation — aptly named VetZero — to raise funds to support veterans.
Zurhellen was mostly alone on his walk, although the first leg was shared by an old Navy pal. Zurhellen visited VFW posts along his route and talked with other veterans. Well-wishers followed VetZero’s Facebook page to track his journey and send letters to the post offices along his route.
Arriving at Marist’s main gate at 2 p.m. on Friday, Zurhellen was greeted by a large number of faculty, staff, student-athletes, elected officials, local veterans, and other community members. Accompanied by cadets from Marist’s Army ROTC and the Middletown High School Navy Junior ROTC, Zurhellen was met by Marist President Dennis Murray and his wife Marilyn before making his way down to the Campus Green for a hero’s welcome. Speakers included President Murray, Hudson River Housing Executive Director Christa Hines, and Vet2Vet Program Manager Adam Roche. The campus celebration also featured live patriotic music performed by the Marist Band and Singers, and cannon fire and field music provided by the 6th New York Independent Battery.
Zurhellen speaks to Marist students, faculty, and community members upon the completion of his walk.
In recognition of his extraordinary efforts on behalf of veterans, Zurhellen was honored with the New York Conspicuous Service Medal, the second highest New York State National Guard military award. The medal, which was approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is awarded to any individual who has distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service in a capacity of great responsibility. Command Sergeant Major (Retired) John Willsey and Sergeant First Class Erich Schmidt of the New York National Guard were on hand to present Zurhellen with the medal.
After all that walking, you’d think Zurhellen would rather hop in a car than trek it by foot. Well, for a local radio interview Monday morning— right before the professor’s semester began that same day — Zurhellen walked to the radio station.
To contribute to Zurhellen’s fundraiser, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/vetzero.