ERNESTO RO­DRIGUEZ For­mer Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, 101st Sus­tain­ment Brigade

Chattanooga Times Free Press - Parade - - HEALTHY - —Stephanie In­man

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.”

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