VETERAN MONTH of the
ERNESTO RODRIGUEZ Former Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, 101st Sustainment Brigade
On Nov. 11, 2016, Ernesto Rodriguez, a 15-year Army veteran, left his home in Clarksville, Tenn., carrying a 60-pound rucksack topped with an American flag. He wouldn’t return home until five months later, after walking 2,200 miles across the U.S. to raise awareness of veteran suicide.
According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report, 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
“I can name at least four friends that I’ve lost to suicide,” says Rodriguez, who served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan and attempted suicide twice. “I knew I had to find a better path.”
Walking Toward a Better Future
Rodriguez, 35, found that path by inspiring others, walking on average 15 to 20 miles a day. From day one, his journey was a metaphor for his message.
“If people wouldn’t have kept telling me to keep going, I probably
would’ve quit,” says Rodriguez, who posted frequently on social media under the handle @Nerdnesto and the hashtag #forthe22.
When Rodriguez reached his final destination in Los Angeles, his trek had expanded beyond his expectations. As he stepped onto the Santa Monica pier, more than 70 people were cheering for him and police officers provided an escort. Rodriguez says, “I literally hugged every single person that showed up.”
While studies are inconclusive about the exact number of veteran suicides in the U.S., Rodriguez, who continues to champion this cause, says pinpointing an exact number doesn’t matter. “[Twenty-two] is just a symbol at this point. One is too many.”